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Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

The Only Self-Help Book You Will Ever Need

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Fans of Mohsin Hamid’s earlier two novels, once again,  are going to be pleasantly rewarded.  His third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is an utter delight—in every way the equal of his first two.  I say this up front because successful novelists often trip up early in their careers, churning out something unworthy of their talents.  Often, the pressures come from publishers who want to cash in on a writer’s success before the public forgets about the writer.

Hamid’sThe Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) is a chilling gavotte, involving an American (probably a CIA operative) and a Pakistani young man who meet on the streets of Lahore and spend an anxious few hours together in prelude (we assume) to a subsequent terrorist act.   A movie version of this widely-praised novel will be released later this year.  Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), records the spiraling decline of a young Pakistani, also in Lahore, who supposedly represents the newly educated elite with unlimited financial opportunities—until things suddenly go awry.  Taken together, the novels heralded a major new voice on the Indian sub-continent—worldly, hip, urbane—which is why Hamid’s third novel is such a pleasure to encounter, without any decline of his talents.

The “hook” for How to Get Rich in Rising Asia is the self-help book, the only gimmick in Hamid’s novel, though the genre is parodied more than it is emulated.  Hence, the point-of-view is the second person.  The novel begins, “Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron.  You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.”  Presumably with the Pakistani reader in mind, the opening chapter titles drive the early narrative: “Move to the City,” “Get an Education,” “Don’t Fall in Love.”  That is, forget the sticks, get enough education so you are street savvy and don’t have to return to the burbs, avoid relationships that will hamper your rise. Above all, work diligently, which is Pakistan means you may need—assuming you have no personal contacts—to begin with a questionable job and deal with shady people.

“Avoid Idealists,” the title of the next chapter, warns you about getting involved with radical groups that are working for a cause (say overthrowing the government).  Better to “Learn from a Master,” in an “apprenticeship” of sorts, though that will also no doubt filthyinvolve questionable activities, since anyone filthy rich has had to do something illegal.  In the narrator’s example, “Your costs are low because your master sources recently expired goods at scrap prices, erases the expiry date from the packaging, and reprints a later date instead.”  The profits can be enormous.  With the wisdom of a master behind you, strike out on your own.

This is where things begin to get a little complicated solely because Pakistan can be a pretty dicey place. Hamid never says that directly—after all, he lives in Lahore and loves the place—but what is mentioned in the background frequently is enough to unsettle many readers.  There’s violence all around you; you may need to engage in a little violence yourself to get what you want.  The background references petrol bombs, muggings, street crime, terrorism, excessive surveillance by the government, urban scrawl, houses enmeshed in razor wire, drones overhead, a military that pretty much grabs what it wants—business and government officials who are corrupt as hell.

Problem is, to reach the top, you will be lonely, since most relationships will need to be left to what’s pragmatic.  So if you see a “pretty girl,” chances are that she is hustling as much as you are and can’t let herself get involved with you any more than you can with her. Your wife—if you should choose to have one—will probably leave you once she understands that you aren’t much interested in anything but your work. You are, in fact, all alone, always running as fast as you can to get what you want.

And, yet, for all the satire, the comic incidents here—mixed with violent ones—How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is one of the most tender narratives you will ever read.  There’s a shift in the last couple of chapters when you will be in your 70’s, no longer the youth you were when you started your rise, when matters get so complicated that if you don’t “Focus on the Fundamentals” (the title of the penultimate chapter and a pun on his earlier work), you’d better forget it all. What kicks into Hamid’s amazing novel is wisdom and tenderness, with the perfection that you have attained that will, hopefully, get you through the final exit.  And although you can’t expect that everyone will be so fortunate, you will certainly adore this book just as I did.

Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Riverhead, 240 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.