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Saturday, January 18, 2014

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

The first time I tried reading this book the voice whooshed over my head. I didn't get it. I didn't like the second person narration. I wasn't sure who was talking and who was the character. In all fairness I had a hamster-like day teaching six classes, coaching after school, then wheeling off to the gym for a relaxing elliptical workout while reading this book. Some books are not meant to be read while multitasking, so I settled for a piston-pumping brainless workout deciding to give it another go in the morning. I'm glad I did. This Scheherazade-type tale warranted my neurons to be fully charged and alert for it is one clever piece. It is not a book for everyone. You might not like the point of view. You might not like the self-help literary style Mohsin Hamid cleverly imitates. But once I stopped moving and focused, I laughed pretty hard enjoying the smart passages, structure, and choice language that shows an author who is willing to take risks in order to create a completely different type of novel. I thought it was brilliant, but you might not. It is as much about the literary process as a narrative about a man who grows up in extreme poverty to becoming filthy rich.

*spoilers*
The second person point of view might be troublesome for some because it erects a barrier of superficiality that can keep the reader emotionally detached from the characters. The mocking and laconic voice of the narrator and protagonist are alienating. The protagonist's take on significant events in his life such as marriage, children, and divorce are more of a footnote in his pursuit of wealth. But this is the point of the book. The protagonist is rich in money but lonely in love and meaningful relationships. He does feel an obligation to his parents and takes care of them, but only in a monetary way. He does the same with his wife at one point expressing regret for not reciprocating her love. His son is the only person he seems genuinely attached to and "pretty girl" although he says that he doesn't spend much time with his son because he works all the time. Whenever the protagonist starts to question his actions, he stops himself and redirects his inward thoughts toward his sole purpose in life which is to make oodles of money.

Mohsin Hamid's choice of using the superficial structure of the self-help genre creates a powerful satire that reinforces the overarching theme that pursuing only riches in life leads to emptiness, rather than connecting with others or "going beyond oneself." Hamid intentionally withholds literary details commonly found in most novels such as not naming the setting or any characters. The main character has dedicated his life to becoming rich and the wry prose shifts from a narrator addressing the reader as a separate person to the character within the story. Hamid creates a narrative within a self-help framework because most books in this genre are written in second person point of view.  In an interview, Hamid explained that he wanted a real narrative within an unreal frame. He also said his second person choice was influenced by Sufi poetry.

The unique literary structure is apparent in the first chapter that has the narrator pointing out that a self-help book is an oxymoron because you wouldn't be reading a how-to get rich book if you knew how to get rich. This is followed by musings on the circuitous nature regarding the self-help, self-improvement, and religious genres and right in the middle of the paragraph the protagonist is introduced as being so sick he could die. The next sentence suddenly shifts to conjure images of Western goods found in most American households: chocolate, sneakers, remotes, scooters before switching to make clear that this a poor boy in Asia has hepatitis E, a deadly virus transmitted by "...fecal-oral. Yum."  The parents can't take him to the doctor and it is unclear if he will live. The narrator then shifts to the mother's thoughts and father's thoughts in humorous observations on life. The mother's boredom of doing the same job over and over captures a universal truth: "But done for hours and days and weeks and years its mild discomfort echoes in the mind like muffled screams from a subterranean torture chamber. It can be borne endlessly, provided it is never acknowledged." The ironic commentary of how your mother, the younger woman waits for grandma to die as the grandma waits for the younger woman to age really hooked me into the voice of the narrator. "The other women of the compound would be frightened of your mother were it not for the reassuring existence of the men. In an all-female society your mother would likely rise to be queen, a bloody staff in her hand and crushed skulls at her feet." The son admires his mother's spirit and is sad when illness robs her of it. The discombobulating shifts in voice took me a few pages to get used to, but once I did I really enjoyed the literary structure of the plot.

The boy who just about dies at the start of the story spends the next hundred pages going from pirating DVD's to building a successful water company that brings him much wealth but not happiness. His world is corrupt and he must work so hard to keep his wealth not realizing until the end that true joy is connecting with others through love. This is the same message in the subplot involving a character called, "pretty girl." The two have come from desperate beginnings in a rural village where most die young and making money in the city means the possibility of living a long life. But this comes at a cost. It isn't until they are old that they discover that love and working on relationships takes courage. Mixed in this narrative is the narrator (or author) who implies that literature and the act of writing also takes courage and that the reader and author are co-creators of the story that is meant to awaken some truth within the reader. The last chapter of the book brilliantly and humorously captures this notion. Titled "Have an Exit Strategy," it symbolizes the character's death or exiting from the world, as well as the reader exiting from the story. The narrator addresses the reader as creating the story with him and creating meaning from it.

Self-help books make people aware of the relationship between the reader and writer and this book reevaluates the concept many times: "It's in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it's approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm." The theme of this book made me think of a quote by C.S. Lewis, “In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth -- only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” The story ends with hope not despair. And while it does shows the social difficulties facing developing countries from corruption, poverty, and economic development (it reminded me in parts of "Beyond the Beautiful Forevers"), it also transcends any specific place allowing the reader to make his or her own world and determine his or her own truth in Hamid's nameless global city.  For me, I was reminded of not holding on tightly to a job, money, or place. How about you? What truth will you find?

5 Smileys

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