“LOOK, UNLESS YOU'RE WRITING ONE, a self-help book is an oxymoron,” begins Mohsin Hamid’s relentlessly brilliant How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Part mock-self-help book (and a failed one at that), part classic love story, this novel holds so many narrative surprises, so many mechanical gems, so many literary-Jedi moves, that to speak of it feels like an exercise in eggshell-Ice-Capades, performed upon a surface just a little bit, possibly-maybe sacred.
Hamid is a master stylist, and his third novel is, I think, his best thus far. In just over 200 pages, Hamid takes a child growing up in a rural area (which it might be fair to assume is the Pakistan countryside), narrates his entire life, and leaves him as an old man who has loved and lost, gained and squandered, ascended and plummeted. The twin obsessions that shape his trajectory are professional success — he’s trying to master the bottled water trade — and a hot-and-cold affair with his childhood sweetheart. Known to the reader only as “pretty girl,” this young woman transforms from neighborhood outcast to mainstream fashion model and TV personality, with her own triumphs and failures sometimes clashing with and sometimes mirroring the protagonist’s, in fascinating ways. There is something so rich and so deeply authentic in this romance that its rendering alone hooks the reader — even one less interested in love stories, like this particular reader — and eventually drops the hook in a most unpredictable way.
Part of the joy of HTGFRiRA, in fact, is that it keeps you guessing — and never turns out the way you guess. The novel is so consistently surprising, in every possible way, that it almost feels as if Hamid were dared to write a novel unlike any other — and managed to do so on the highest level possible: he has made the Novel-Unlike-Any-Other an absolute necessity at this point in contemporary literary fiction.
This should come as no shock to Hamid fans; it’s not only his “hot” or “relevant” subject matters that have established him as one of our most celebrated novelists (his first novel, Moth Smoke, was a PEN/Hemingway finalist and his second, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was an international bestseller). The reading public has embraced Hamid for his pop-y, witty, piercingly genuine, and non–“Ethnic Fiction 101” depictions of Lahore, but what interests me, and many others, most about Hamid are his formal inventiveness and risk-taking.
The dozen chapters of HTGFRiRA all begin with a How To Win Friends and Influence People sort of voice, and then gracefully segue into a narrative that zooms in and out of the protagonist’s life — a protagonist who is “you,” by the way; like self-help books, the novel is written in the oft–frowned upon second-person point of view. At no point does this device seem contrived, literary pyrotechnics for their own sake — in fact, the device seems necessary on two levels. One is thematic: it allows the reader to get a sense of very current global economics that is the essential context of the narrative, occasionally bleeding into subtext. The second is purely pragmatic from a skilled writer’s standpoint — it allows for the author to maneuver chronologically and geographically with agility and little apology. Here the experimental nature of the writing is absolutely necessary and the device actually provides tremendous aesthetic pleasure for the reader on an additional level — being privy to a higher joke, and wondering how, O how, the punch line will pan out, especially given the sobriety of the intense storyline within.
What I enjoyed the most in HTGFRiRA I can’t disclose here, sadly. But when you read it, you’ll thank me, reader: the novel ends with one of the most stunning final sentences I’ve read in contemporary fiction, a sentence that no review will ever quote, but an indelible sentence, which will live in your heart, mind, and soul long after you read it, and well into some equally hard-to-pinpoint forever than none of us completely shares.