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These guys are happy because their little brains literally can't grasp the concept of global warming.
After taking the position, early on in the life of this column, that most fiction writers make poor narrators of their own audiobooks, I have once more been proven wrong. (Last year, I liked the way Victor LaValle’s Queens accent conveyed the soul of a borough in “The Devil in Silver.”) I can’t imagine a better narrator for Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” than Hamid himself.
The framing device of this novel is a self-help manual, but it’s easy to make way too much of that. Hamid pretends to tell “you,” a young man born in a poor village in what appears to be Pakistan, advice on how to parlay “your” natural talents into wealth amid a society of breathtaking ruthlessness and striving. Of course, chances are close to nil that you are such a person, or that you’ve picked up this book looking for any such advice. Rather, the self-help feint allows Hamid to smoothly adopt the second-person — a writerly choice that usually registers as painfully self-conscious or presumptuous (see: “Bright Lights, Big City”).
Yet the effect of the second-person in this case is pronounced. “You” get a minimal education, watch your mother die of a treatable illness because you can’t afford the needed care, cobble together a business by boiling tap water and selling it in recycled bottles and eventually become a prosperous businessman. Does Hamid’s narration, with its insistent “you’s” utterly in a baritone that is almost yet not quite gravelly — let’s call it sandy — make the reader’s identification with this man even more total? I think so. It helps that the novel doesn’t require Hamid to put across a lot of dialogue. When he does, he doesn’t try to create a different voice for each character, and that works because the novel is so strongly filtered through a single sensibility.
With the novel under the sway of that sensibility, the character of “you” remains a very specific individual, with a lost love (a girl he meets on the streets but who escapes into a career as a model and lifestyle entrepreneur), a disappointed wife, a son who can only be at home in the West, a treacherous protégé and an old age that, for all the harshness of its setting, achieves a kind of grace. At times, Hamid even gets essayistic, discoursing on the subject of readers and books in a way that some might find jarring — personally, I agree with him so completely, I rewound to that bit and transcribed it in my journal.
Isn’t this the definition of great fiction, that even when it begins with a character (tubercular, hiding on the dirt floor under his mother’s cot) who’s nothing like you, by the end you are convinced that it really is about you? That’s a kind of miracle, of the sort that self-help books can only dream of achieving.
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The Listener is Salon's new weekly audiobook review column, where Laura Miller and other top critics will recommend a great new title for you to plug into. So stay tuned -- and come back every Thursday for a new installment.