May 27, 2013

Book Review: "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" by Mohsin Hamid

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

The first few chapters of Mohsin Hamid's unique and thoroughly enjoyable new novel How Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia read something like the kind of book the title promises--that is, a parody of the self-help form that became popular in the eighties and remains so today. I own a few choice examples of the genre myself, for example, We Need to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Men and Women, bought when I was in the kind of dark place many years ago where buying such a book seems like a good idea. I've tried to throw that particular gem away at least a half-dozen times when purging books in recent years, but my wife forces me to keep it, because of what having a book like that on my shelf says about the kind of person I am "on the inside," despite the gruff and often mildly annoyed exterior. And therein lies the power of the genre. In no other form is the bond between writer and reader so intimate. The goal of a good self-help book, after all, is to help the reader define and redefine himself, and having a certain title on your shelf can even help others define you. We Need to Talk might trick others into believing you are a sensitive person who sees the importance of communication, but prominently positioning How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia where others can see it will make a much safer statement: that you are a reader of impeccable taste.

The audience this self-help book is ostensibly directed toward, of course, are those who want to get filthy rich in rising Asia--in this case, Asia's rural poor. The book is told in the second person, and no character in it is named. Getting rich in rising Asia, for the rural poor at least, is a kind of life's work, and so the book begins in "Your" early childhood. As in, you are sick. You live with your family in a single room of a hovel with mud walls, your father father works in the faraway city, returning a couple nights every month. Your family gets its drinking water from a stream. Upstream, this same water source is used by the villagers as a toilet. Children as sick as you are have certainly died in the village before, as have children less sick than you. In the village, the death of children is a common occurrence. But you will not die.

The first chapter, and so the first step toward getting filthy rich--cleverly, there are a total of twelve chapters in this short book--is "Move to the City." And that is just what the family does. In the city, we see our young protagonist move through a series of jobs, from working in a pirated video store, to selling expired goods with the expiration date removed, to selling bottled water that he's bottled himself. The boy is lucky, because he is the youngest sibling in the family. He has longer to adapt to urban life, he has educational opportunities not available to his older siblings--"Chapter Two: Get an Education." In his early teenage years, the boy meets a pretty girl who comes from even more desperate circumstances than he does, but who has an even greater drive to rise above them. On the night that their first romantic encounter finally occurs, the pretty girl abruptly leaves city.

Where the book broadened for me--that is, where it stopped being a clever, jokey (if very interesting and evocative) satire, and unexpectedly became the kind of book that brings tears to a reader's eyes--were the scenes in which the protagonist's mother falls ill and eventually dies. At this time, the protagonist has gone off to university, where he has grown a beard and joined an "organization" that he's somewhat skeptical of. When the mother develops a tumor that is eventually diagnosed as thyroid cancer, the family has nowhere to turn except to the matriarch of the family that the father has worked for during their time in the city. The boy, now a young man, is bothered, though not shamed, by his father obsequiousness when dealing with the matriarch. The older woman eventually agrees to provide the funds necessary for a life-saving operation. She does not however, provide the funds for hormone and radiation treatment after the operation. This is the family's responsibility. The young man turns to his "organization," but they are no help. The mother dies. The thing is, after the mother dies, the father kind of goes to pieces. The way he has been characterized to that point in the book, this doesn't seem like something he would do. Perhaps the author is toying with ingrained stereotypes about Middle Eastern men. The ambitious son then returns home, leaving school to live with and care for his broken-hearted father, another unexpected turn. All of this allows the reader to think backward toward the beginning of the story, the family's unexplained and surprising move to the city, and realize that perhaps the father has been a softy all along. After all, he moved his family to the city before it was economically feasible to do so--maybe he did this out of love for his wife, because he couldn't bear to be apart from her. All of this opens up so beautifully and naturally--from the first glimmer of vulnerability when the father is dealing with the matriarch, to the wrecked state of his life after his wife's death--that it's really quite a feat.

And it's a feat that Mr. Hamid pulls off again and again in this slim book. I won't spoil more of the plot's turns, but suffice to say--getting filthy rich in Asia is a lifelong process, and so the narrator's whole life is covered.

Shortly after the boy's mother dies, the pretty girl who the boy shared a youthful flirtation with reenters his life. After she comes back the first time, it's pretty clear she'll be back again, and the narrative again broadens to include the pretty girl's own struggle to overcome her childhood. The plot operates as kind of figure eight, with the pretty girl and the boy rising and falling, meeting in the middle, falling and rising, rising and falling, and then meeting again.

I think that's enough. The bottom line is that this is a lovely and charming little book that truly has something for everyone in its pages.

Out of 10: 9

Read even more about How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 7:05 AM, May 27, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |