"How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia": Poor boy makes good

Mohsin Hamid's narration of his novel about a ruthless striver demonstrates the universal appeal of great fiction

Published March 21, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

                                                                               (Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

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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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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