Feb/Mar 2013

Go East, Young Man

Mohsin Hamid sets a coming-of-age tale in hypercapitalist Asia

Siddhartha Deb


For quite some time now, Mohsin Hamid has been chipping away at the shape of the novel, testing out the ways form, structure, and narration can be manipulated to set in relief the story he wants to tell. In <em style="font-size: 10pt;">Moth Smoke </em>(2000), his debut novel about a banker in Lahore on a downward spiral of violence and drugs, Hamid worked into his gritty portrait of Pakistan an allegorical story line about the internecine struggle for succession to the imperial throne in seventeenth-century Mughal India. The deployment of this historical material did not always sit well with Hamid’s deft portrayal of contemporary Pakistan. It was easy to read into it an uneasy, unfinished aggrandizement of sorts, as if the hollowed-out playboys of Lahore would not be worthy of our attention or empathy without an epic backdrop of some sort, or as if we would feel no involvement with his protagonist, Daru, without seeing in him a version of the mystic prince Dara Shikoh.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a far more accomplished work, followed in 2007. In it, Hamid gave us the story of Changez, a Princeton graduate working for an elite consulting firm in New York, in love with the neurotic Erica, and well along the path to assimilation when his trajectory is interrupted by the attacks of 9/11. In the aftermath of the attacks and the anti-Muslim paranoia that overtakes the West, Changez returns to Lahore, grows a beard, and becomes involved in challenging the looming imperial presence of the United States in his homeland.

Hamid’s innovation in The Reluctant Fundamentalist was to tell the story of Changez in the first person, delivered to an actual listener, to a “You” who appeared to be an unnamed American man accosted by Changez in a Lahore market. The idea was borrowed from Albert Camus’s novel The Fall, but into that mode of address Hamid breathed his own twisted genius, so that even the opening line—“Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”—managed to evoke the debasement people from poor countries routinely offer to wealthy visitors from the West while also working into it a tinge of post-9/11 retaliatory menace. So even though Hamid’s depiction of the central drama of Changez’s journey to the West and back was compelling enough, what lent it special frisson was Changez’s relationship with the “You” to whom he was telling the story, especially as this second person, who started as an unwitting Westerner who might have blundered into the domain of an unhinged narrator, began gradually to morph into a threatening bulk of his own, perhaps a CIA contractor on a hit job with Changez as his target.

Now, in his new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid seems to invert the relationship between “I” and “You,” with the second-person singular dominating the story while “I” lounges against the backdrop, performing the role of an omniscient narrator. “I” offers wisdom and stage directions but is for the most part happy to cede center stage as “You” performs the role of protagonist in a story, whose entrepreneurial subject is announced in the book’s very catchy title. Shaped as a self-help book, presumably of the kind offered for sale in a pirated edition by an emaciated creature wandering past cars caught in the eternal traffic gridlocks of rising Asia, the novel depicts the journey of You from rags to riches and beyond under the benevolent guidance of I.

If the title of the book is grandiose, the chapter headings are pithy, although it is not long before the reassuring banalities demanded by the self-help genre (“Move to the City,” “Get an Education”) begin to be challenged by the equally insistent demands of the novel (“Be Prepared to Use Violence,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat,” “Patronize the Artists of War”). Through all this, You progresses along his career curve, moving to the city and getting an education while his mother dies of cancer and his less fortunate siblings are trapped and broken by poverty. He becomes a small businessman, supplying bottled water with fake brand names, a precarious position that he eventually parlays into becoming the water baron of a city whose thirst proceeds apace with its rise. Meanwhile, the love of You’s life, a girl befriended in the slum of his youth, travels on a similar trajectory from utter insignificance to overwhelming visibility as a glamorous model.

Throughout all this, despite references to bottled water, SUVs, and assault rifles, no specific names are provided: not for the brands, not for the characters, and not for the village You came from or for the city to which he has moved. No country is mentioned explicitly, although the “baggy trousers” worn by the men, a waiter’s deft concealment of a bottle of wine with a cloth napkin at a luxury hotel, and, most of all, a drone hovering above a funeral scene all suggest that the book is set in Pakistan in the near-present.

These generic details emphasize that How to Get Filthy Rich, though it wears the clever fleece of the self-help book, is really a bildungsroman, the story of a protagonist’s formation across the precarious terrain of youth and entrance to the state of adulthood. In such a story, there are rules to be learned and others to be broken; alliances to be made and small wars to be fought with enemies; lovers to be gained, to be discarded, or to be betrayed by. This is all to take place in a world that has enough turmoil to allow poseurs and self-starters to indulge, if temporarily, the dream of upward mobility.

Hamid’s choice to write a bildungsroman wrapped inside a self-help manual is an inspired one. From its very origins in Europe, the bildungsroman—written, populated, and read by members of the rising bourgeoisie—has always been the doppelgänger of the self-help genre. But where the self-help book offers success, the bildungsroman is ultimately interested in the failure that follows attempts at success, at the collapse or stasis that is the inevitable end to remaking the self in a world that is rapacious and unfair. So Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black, unable to settle comfortably into any of his considerable talents, ends as no more than a guillotined head; so Frédéric Moreau in Sentimental Education, missing out on the French Revolution while waiting fruitlessly for his mistress to appear for a tryst, leaves Paris for the provinces to fritter away the rest of his life reflecting on the good times of the past; so Pip in Great Expectations, becoming a gentleman with money whose origins lie in the brutality of colonialism and capitalism, finds himself thwarted, in spite of Dickens’s rewritten ending, in his love for Estella; and so, across the Atlantic, Gatsby, affecting a posh Oxbridge accent, comes to his end, a pretender punished by the hardened elites whose ranks he has only wandered through, like a ghost.

The rising-Asian variant of the bildungsroman is at once far more cynical and far more honest. It seems to take the bildungsroman’s initial promise of fulfillment literally, as if the form is no different from that of the self-help manual, as if success, rather than failure, is the natural end point of self-realization—even if that success is achieved via sociopathic acts. That understanding is what gives us Balram Halwai, the murderer-entrepreneur of Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008), writing letters to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and offering his own life as a case study of success amid the overall systemic failure of India. It is how we get, in the rising China of Wen Jiabao, the seeming triumph of Baldy Li, who begins as a Peeping Tom and climaxes as the creator and arbiter of national beauty contests in Yu Hua’s epic novel Brothers (2010). And the promise of success, of course, provides both form and content for Hamid’s novel, whose unnamed protagonist journeys from nothing to everything.

The violence, cynicism, and hollowness that characterize each of these stories of success are not accidental. Unlike their European or American counterparts, the Asian novels do not harbor illusions about how capitalism works or how the modern world is really made. Hamid’s You sees Pakistan with clarity. Although he is calculating enough to part ways with the fundamentalists he joined as a college student once he realizes that they will hold him back from material success, he remains quite insistent about the virtues of the upper strata where he seeks a foothold.

In this, You seems to have extra help from Hamid, who can be somewhat generic in his portrayal of the lower classes but is capable of inflicting sharp, satirical cuts on the Pakistani upper classes. There’s a swift sketch of “the handsome although late-blooming and aggressively insecure son of a textile magnate” on whose arm the model enters halfway through the novel. And when You negotiates a bribe with a bureaucrat, the narrator comments that “bureaucrats . . . wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests,” and that “bankers . . . wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state.” As You moves up, through the good offices of the bureaucrat, to a meeting with the politician with whom the buck really stops, Hamid’s prose sketches out the scenario for us briskly:

Fears of terrorism have led the politician to take measures to secure his residence, strong-arming his neighbors into selling him their properties, erecting a razor-wire-topped boundary wall far in excess of permissible heights, and placing illegal barricades at either end of the street. Police officers mill about on foot, and a heavily armed rapid-response unit idles in a pickup truck, ready to accompany him on the move.

By the time You is talking, later in the book, with a “retired” brigadier about supplying water to a gated community that will be built by a military-owned company, Hamid has left us with no doubts about how state and market, law and crime, nation and corporation, and money and violence go together—in rising Asia as in the rest of the world.

For all its smoothly functioning satire, however, How to Get Filthy Rich begins to take some unusual turns in its final pages. There is the sudden introduction of surveillance as a narrative mode (“A series of CCTV cameras observes various stages of your progress through the cantonment”) that adds, in spite of the well-made point that we’re all transparent before a global panopticon, an extra, unwieldy layer to the already overladen business of I and You. There is also a rushed pacing toward the conclusion of the novel, which gives us a portrait of the protagonist in his eighties, at the end of his long journey. If this is a glimpse of the future, as Hamid suggests, it doesn’t look much different from the present era of ferocious and worldwide consumerism and hypercapitalism.

It is the shift in tone, however, that is most surprising, revealing a sudden concern with downfall and redemption, with small victories rather than the big payback, and, most of all, with the question of death. As the narrator readily admits, these are not typical areas of interest for readers of the self-help genre, and one can understand why. The breezy tone that Hamid has employed so effectively elsewhere begins to grate here, while the second-person address verges, alternately, on the banal and the maudlin. It is almost as if, in attempting to become more novel-like, How to Get Filthy Rich succumbs to the ennui of self-help in the closing pages. At such moments, one sees the limitations of Hamid’s experiment with this particular form even as one recalls its strengths. One thinks of how the novel brings together the bildungsroman and the self-help book as it depicts for us, two-thirds of the way in, the rise of You against a backdrop of smoke, tear gas, vinegar-soaked scarves, and petrol bombs, even as I offers the reader a refreshingly unfiltered version of business-school, self-help wisdom, pronouncing that “becoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else.”

Siddhartha Deb's most recent book, The Beautiful and the Damned (Faber & Faber, 2011), was a winner of the PEN Open Book Award and a finalist for the George Orwell Prize.

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