on March 12, 2013
Mohsin Hamid and his PR people created plenty of pre-release buzz for How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. So, like a lot of other folks, I woke up on March 5th eager to read my pre-ordered e-copy. Overall, a huge thumbs up to Hamid, a phenomenally talented writer. "You," the never-named protagonist of his third novel, is not a particularly likeable character. He and his story, told by an unsentimental narrator known as "I," make for some dark reading. They are, however, wholly believable in the third world where widespread poverty drains individuals and impacts almost every aspect of society including questions of morality.
Where the novel soars is in Hamid's masterful writing. He tells the story of "You," his world and his life with a style and economy of words that speed the reader along. One example: "And where moneymaking is concerned, nothing compresses the time frame needed to leap from my-s***-just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence like an apprenticeship with someone who already has the angles all figured out."
The self-help book format that begins each chapter, and may irritate some readers, reflects a genre popular with a certain demographic searching for inexpensive ways to improve their lot in life. Few novelists could write an entire work in which no character, city or country has a name. "You" and the half dozen people who matter in his life--the pretty girl, his parents, wife/ex-wife, son and thieving brother-in-law--are purposely imprecise and unsympathetic, composites of countless real-life individuals and their stories. In 240 pages of exquisite writing, Hamid manages to tell the tale of an extraordinary octogenarian and leave readers from widely diverse backgrounds with a story they will remember for a long time.
The author of "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" styles the novel as a sort of self-help book of how to succeed in modern Asia as related by an undescribed third person narrator. It is a clever conceit.
The book has twelve chapters each laying out a guideline for success in business in modern Asia very similar to those guidelines available in any number of actual nonfiction business books geared to developing the next set of great entrepreneurs and blue-chip businessmen (and women.) The guidelines include "Get an Education," "Don't Fall in Love," "Avoid Idealists," "Work for Yourself," and similar others. The proud and confident protagonist of this book--an unnamed "you"--follows these guidelines to what one can call a successful business career.
Whether the successful business career also equates to a successful life is another question and that may be the essential theme of this book. Readers will have to judge for themselves how the protagonist, and the narrator, evaluate the life of the protagonist as he leaves his hardscrabble rural environment as a young man and makes his business career in the big city.
Learning the rules to being a business success as he goes along, he leaves his village and family behind, has an irregular, long-term, mostly distant relationship with a young model, sees his parents die, gets married and has a son, and maneuvers deftly through the poverty, crime, bizarre bureaucracy, and transformative economy of the (unnamed) Asian nation feeling its way in a global evolution.
Very much like "The White Tiger," by Aravind Adiga, Mr. Hamid describes the rich and complex textures of life in such an interesting, frustrating, and dynamic nation-the contrasts of rich and poor and city and country; the struggle to modernize; the range of personal strategies to survive (corruption, crime, deceit, entrepreneurship etc.); and the complex interplay of the survival instinct, ego, community, family, love, and meaning.
Amidst all of this texture and dynamism, there is opportunity for personal initiative and creativity. The twelve guides to success represent true principles of survival and advancement in rising Asia and in other similar primitive and capitalist environments. Yet, as the protagonist ages, suffers business and physical declines, both the protagonist and narrator seem to have doubts about their ultimate values.
There seems to be a hint of Herbert Marcuse's view of the dark side of business (capitalist) success here. The last chapter, called "Have an Exit Strategy" is especially moving, not merely because the protagonist and narrator become reflective and self-conscious, but because the reader will.
(FTC disclosure (16 CFR Part 255)): The reviewer has accepted a reviewer's copy of this book which is his to keep. He intends to provide an honest, independent, and fair evaluation of the book in all circumstances.)
Mohsin Hamid's task was tough: writing a novel that would measure up to the compelling and dramatic opus that helped him make his name, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The fact that he has done this so well in this novel, which takes a similarly wry and cynical look at the daily lives of those living in the "emerging economies" of the world, is a tribute to both his skill as a writer and to his ability to take those experiences and transform them into compelling fiction. This won't appeal to all readers of "Reluctant Fundamentalist", given its very different tone and focus, but together the two books not only gave me two wonderful and distinctive reading experiences but helped me grasp the realities that lie behind the global demographic trends.
What made "Reluctant Fundamentalist" so vivid and so compelling was the voice: Hamid's main character was speaking directly to someone he has encountered in a Pakistani city, and explaining the process by which he became what he is today -- the man of the title. In contrast, the narrator of this novel is Hamid himself, or his proxy: a cynically omniscient presence, who speaks to the main character, an unnamed Pakistani toddler/boy/adolescent/young man/aging man, who defies the odds to do just what the title promises, become filthy rich (or at least, what passes for filthy rich in his world). "In the world of cooks and delivery boys and minor salesmen, the world to which you have belonged, a resident's bond is a rest stop on the incessant treadmill of life," the narrator 'instructs' his character at a key turning point in the latter's journey. "Yet you are now a man who works for himself, an entrepreneur." And sure enough, the young man takes his savings to put them to work to expand his bottled water business, setting the stage for success.
Using the format of the ubiquitous manuals for success that are so popular in much of the Indian subcontinent, China and other emerging economies, Hamid is able to comment ironically on what constitutes success (his anonymous 'hero' gets his start reselling boiled tap water as bottled water) and how all that those of us in more stable parts of the world consider vital (ethics, friendship, love, ideals) must be shunned. These luxuries will distract the determined man in pursuit of wealth, and in "rising Asia", there is no middle ground between success and failure; no just 'making do', especially if you don't have wealthy parents or connections who can bribe others on your behave to get you a sinecure in the civil service. To succeed, you have to leave the countryside for the city (as billions of "rising Asians" have done in the last half-century), embrace education and corruption, shun love, be entrepreneurial and yes, even violent, if need be.
In many ways, the main character in this novel is the other side of the coin to Hamid's reluctant fundamentalist. The latter has tried to build a new life away from his roots but has failed and found his refuge in becoming what people already feared he was. The unnamed "you" of this book hasn't tried to leave behind his world, but to make it work for him, corruption and all. Both, in different ways, find themselves destroyed by the effort. This novel, however, is spread over the decades of its subject's life: it is life via a wide-angle camera lens rather than the intensity of a telephoto image, and that creates a different kind of impact within the reader. It's harder to engage with this character, much less the 'pretty girl' with whom he falls in a kind of love in his late teenage years, and who herself is determined to make it against the odds. Their obsession with their goal pulls them apart from each other, but also made them harder for me, as the reader, to relate to -- they were oddly impersonal. But then, that's just what Hamid intended to do.
This brilliant novel loses its way a little in the final pages, as the main character ages, and I couldn't help wishing for an ending just as ambiguous as that of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in place of the straightforward and rather obvious conclusion. Still, that didn't put much of a damper on my enthusiasm for Hamid's vivid prose or his sardonic tone as he takes the reader through the stages that lead to 'success' in the emerging markets today. There's a lot of talk about the rising middle class in countries like Pakistan, India, China, Indonesia and many other nations of this kind, and a raft of recent non-fiction works like Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers have dealt eloquently with those who are left behind. Increasingly, Asian novelists are dealing with these themes, and in Hamid's case, doing so with great success. Being a Pakistani novelist may not be a recipe for becoming "filthy rich", but it enriches the lives and understanding of his lucky readers.
The bottom line? Not all readers of Hamid's previous tour-de-force novel will find this as dramatic or immediate, but it's just another way to convey through fiction one of the biggest transformations of the century. Their prose styles may be far distant, but Hamid has an almost Dickensian ability to capture social trends and character. 4.5 stars, rounded up because this is too good a novel to earn only four stars.
on March 9, 2013
This book isn't a self-help book, but rather the life story of a man who is never named in the book. Born in rural poverty, after moving to city, he slowly climbs in position and wealth. Mohsin Hamid beautifully describes this city--like so many other cities in rising Asia--chaotic, changing and absorbing millions of rural immigrants.Although there are many flaws in these cities, there are many opportunities too. The main character avails these opportunities--education, business. The business he chooses isn't legal, but he climbs the ladder and becomes a rich man.
This book beautiful describes this growing city, its flaws and opportunities that it avails.It's a good read on changing demographics and social conditions in Asia's growing cities.There is so much going on in these cities. Thousands of rural people moving in, searching for better life, and some achieving it. It is not slow change; it's visible sudden change. These dynamic cities perhaps hold the key to the future of rising Asia.
I am a huge fan of Mohsin Hamid. Many years ago, I conducted an hour-long college seminar on "Moth Smoke" and more recently wrote a feature five-star review of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" on Amazon. Naturally, I looked forward with great anticipation to his third novel.
But I should have known better: fans are often the hardest to please. Perhaps I set myself up. I was not only disappointed in "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," I actually found the reading experience distasteful. In fact, to say I took an immediate intense dislike to the book is an understatement.
For me, this book was just too gimmicky from beginning to end. I couldn't get past the artifice of the odd second person narration. There was no way I could identify with the "you" character and being forced to do so paragraph after paragraph ad nauseum was torture. In addition, the self-help-book theme struck me as too forced and awkward.
So what was it that got under my skin the most? First, the author wrote himself into the story as the "I" character...and, as created by Hamid, this "I-character"-as-author is someone fully jaded by life, an overly clever and extremely cynical person. If I meet this "author" at a party, I'd lose him...fast! Second, I could not work up any interest in the two main characters, i.e., the "you" and "the pretty girl." Both were shallow narcissists. The author spends little time giving them emotional and psychological depth. I followed the brief outlines of their life stories with little interest because neither character was fleshed out in three dimensions.
To sum it up: I don't want my literature to be gimmicky...even if the writer is masterful and the writing is, at times, superb and transcendent.
I'm giving the novel three stars rather than two because there were parts that I enjoyed very much...and one chapter that blew me away (the chapter described from the viewpoint of an airborne drone). Hamid is a very accomplished writer; for me, that was the book's sole redemption. But his good writing wasn't enough to make up for the overall bad feeling of being in the middle of something too contrived for its own good.
We never really know who is telling this story. It could be person from the past or the present. Perhaps it is some sort of omniscient voice. Sometimes the observations aren't so wise. But the voice took me in right away.
Hamid's book is structured as a self help book addressing the unnamed protagonist working his way from grinding poverty to become filthy rich. The term filthy rich is not an accidental idiom; it encompasses all the actions that had been required to reach wealthy status for a man born with lack of estate, power, or pedigree. This narrator is the second character and his insight into the pain and regrets of the protagonist constitute the unknown fate and future of his efforts. This voice is wry and sometimes nostalgic. The narrator is a perverse Jiminy Cricket bearing the practical side of a conscience i n a world too poor to accomodate one.
Meanwhile, Hamid has managed to transform the now ritual story of the boy rising from the Indian slums to monetary success. He has escaped the hackneyed plot. In adding the narrator speaking in second person, he allows his characher to pause mentally from some of the "filthier" parts of his wealth while still pursuing whatever he needs to do. The point that Indian success depends on a totally different set of rules from some other countries is acknowledged, but in the end is slyly seen to be identical to the stories of any acquired wealth. Sometimes I longed to yell over the narrator and dissuade him from one course or another, but this is the fate of a book. To complete the quote in the title, each reader constructs his own book just as each sperm creates its own universe in its successful pursuit of the egg.
This book will pursue you and lie in wait for you in the crannies of wisdom dispersed with the plot. I wasn't attracted by the title, but read it due to Amazon editor picks, and I have to say that this was completely merited. It is another story pitched to your mind in its making of its own version of this book.
on April 23, 2013
I just finished this book this morning. I bought it because of a complimentary review about it that I read in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Here is the main problem -- I already read the book THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga, which was published 5 years ago in 2008 and WHITE TIGER is hands down, by far the better book. I'm sure Mohsin Hamid must hate the comparisons that will inevitably be made between his new book and White Tiger - but the subject matter is really incredibly similar. But White Tiger is more gripping and engaging and emotional. I remember that I couldn't put it down once I'd started it.
This book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is not really like that. I didn't find it very gripping, engaging or emotional. But again - maybe that's because I've already read White Tiger. So the concept of the storyline - a rags to riches tale set in the tumultous backdrop of South Asia - wasn't new at all to me. I did *initially* find it cool that the story is told in the format of a 'self-help' book and that the narrator speaks not in the "I" first person, or the "he" - the narrator speaks in the 'You'. So, for example - "you [are] huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother's cot one cold, dewy morning." But biggest problem of the book is -- after a few pages, once I'd gotten past the novelty of the narration and the 'self-help' format - I found the storyline lacking. It was too high level. It never delved deep enough or told me enough to make me truly care about any of the characters.
Whereas, if you were to ask me about White Tiger, all these years later, I could talk to you about it in detail because the story left such a deep emotional mark on me. But nothing much stood out in this book. Of course, there's tenderness and love and betrayal in this book - but how those events unfold is just not deep or gripping enough.
on May 1, 2013
Mohsin Hamid's "How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia" will keep you spellbound with it's prose, but the lack of emotional depth or development in the characters render this short novel a bit of a one trick pony. The trick however is good enough to show up and see what this pony is all about.
Told as a second person narrative, "How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia" (hereafter "HTGFRIRA"), is about the rise and fall of a unnamed boy who moves to an unnamed slum of a city in poverty and ends up one of it's wealthiest denizens. Along the way he will fall in love, start a business, get married, and guide his business up the wheel of fortune and watch as it falls back into the muck.
Hamid's book is grounded in enough of present day Third World problems that it feels real and important. All the issues in deregulated Third World states - lack of environmental protection, fraud, corruption, exploitation of workers, vulnerability to organized crime - all come into play here. And because "HTGFRIRA" is so light and unencumbered by plotting or characters, reviewers or well-educated readers can easily turn it into a tool in their next debate. Like a shiny bowl to be filled with rhetoric. The setting the story takes place in, a world of endless urban sprawl, no environmental regulations, and sub-standard products should be familiar to anyone that has spent time off the beaten path in the sub first world.
The nameless hero dodges and weaves his way to the top of the Third World totem pole by cunningly taking advantage of or skirting all the issues I mentioned before. He is a huckster. Selling water, the most essential of all commodities, that he boils to proper safety standards (sometimes) in his basement. He uses a gang to protect himself from violent rivals. He negotiates the asinine bureaucratic rules of the government. The unnamed country (seems like India to me) is as much a character as our protagonist, a place where the drive for growth has outstripped rules and decency, where only the cunning and immoral can advance (a place best shown in journalism in the New Yorker article "Boss Rail" by Evan Osnos from October 2012). Throughout Hamid's prose shines with clever turns of phrases, metaphors, use of imagery continually raising my eeybrows.
Brief aside: I would recommend reading this book without the dust jacket. I was approached in the mall while reading it by a woman who thought that it was an ACTUAL self-help book; IE that I actually was reading a book that would teach me how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. She clearly wanted to verbally go at it, as it took some persuading to convince her that it was a novel rather than a tool for me to learn how to exploit and get rich off Asians. She proceeded to say something about Asia which may have been profound but I forgot and something about leadership; how Chris Christie is a true leader because he can physically intimidate people (while saying this she started bumping up against me). Top 5 most bizarre experience I've ever had at a Best Buy Mobile
This book, which I enjoyed a lot, is a little like a Maserati - it's great at going fast, but you couldn't bring your daughter to soccer practice, go on a roadtrip, or get groceries with it. I judge books on prose (writing style, symbolism, use of metaphors, etc), the characters, the plot, and the overlying themes and literary significance (I would probably rate the importance as 30, 30, 30 and 10 percent of my overall grade, respectively). What is missing from "HTGFRIRA" is the drive and motivation of the protagonist. He wants to make a bunch of money, wants his business to succeed. Not sure why....which makes sense, because the protagonist is you! "HTGFRIRA" is undone by the same gimmick which makes it great. The lack of character development and motivation condemns the "HTGFRIRA" to fancy sports car status. Might not be the best car in the world, but it sure can fly, though.
on February 14, 2015
I found this hysterically funny although there were some in my bookclub who though it was depressing. I came originally from SE Asia so I understand the poverty Mohsin Hamid was talking about and the desperation to rise above the poverty. However, although the book depicts the dire poverty so many in India and Pakistan live in, I thought that Mr. Hamid was able to also bring humor and sarcasm into this book without making the protagonist into people you despise or feel sorry for. In the end, this was basically a book of satire with a large dose of self deprecating humor.
on April 6, 2013
I could not put the book down once I started reading it. Moshin Hamid's book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is truly funny all the way through the book. Whereas we wept with compassion upon reading Katherine Boo's book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, in this book we laugh continually, reread fantastically well constructed sentences, learn new uses for words we know well, and finally realize that author is NOT a 100% cynic but is deeply sad for the state of his world which is our world as well, the worlds being connected if you extend out the end use of products with the invention, manufacture of products, transportation of pieces, ad campaigns for products, services for the product, bribes paid when necessary,stong-arm tactics used when needed and on and on.
The author, M. Hamid, is quite young, (compared to me). How does he know so much about life? Why did it take me so long to learn what Hamid knows and is able to write about? Let me remind you again: Mr. Hamid is not the cynic he appears to be. As you read the book, you will find Mr. Hamid in love with life, though he expresses himself in a most unlikely way. Read the book, be prepared to laugh and to cry. Do enjoy Hamid's latest book. NanS