Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (240 pages, Riverhead, $25.95), is something of a tour de force. At a time when life stories from Asia are overwhelming in their length and breadth, Hamid tells a very simple tale about how a poor Asian, in an unnamed country, with a little bit of talent and know-how, can profit in a system that is corrupt and make the most out of the ignorance of his countrymen.
The narrator talks to the hero, who is never named, in the second person, which adds an intimacy, and he often uses the language of self-help books to suggest the path form obscure poverty to corporate power. The chapters move quickly and each takes us through an important stage of development of our hero.
What goes up must also come down, and it is not ruining the story to say that the greed and self-satisfaction that brings about ascendency can also undermine it in the end.
What marks the growth and development of the hero, as much as the schemes he develops or the money he saves, is the love he feels for a girl, who is known throughout as “the pretty girl.” At first it seems that she is out of his league, but he is handsome and powerful in his way, and it seems that she is attracted to him as well.
They are both on the make, however, and she can’t stop with a young nobody: she has too much to achieve. And with her good looks and her moxie, she more than succeeds to fulfill her dreams. As the hero grows in power, every so often he runs into her again, and their brief encounters serve to punctuate the degree to which they have fulfilled their dreams and how much that can mean to them.
As short as the novel is, it is very powerful. I called it a parable above, and I think it does work that way. The hero is an Asian everyman, and this is the progress he is meant to pursue. The implications of the story are deeply moving, and even as we see the hero making bad choices, there is little we can imagine as an alternative to the choices he makes.