Mohsin Hamid’s latest, his first since The Reluctant Fundamentalist and the reissue of Moth Smoke, is a kind of a self-help book, in which, over the course of a dozen or so chapters, we learn what it takes to get filthy rich in Rising Asia. Except, of course, we don’t really, because this is a novel, about a character (called You when he is called anything) who grows up poor in a rural outpost, graduates to the big city, works for other people, starts up his own business (there is quite a line in fakes in Rising Asia and his business, to begin with, is as fake as the best of them), grows his business, learns to bribe the corrupt officials who require bribing and take on the even more corrupt competitors who attempt to derail him. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that like all success stories, there is a sting, of sorts, in the tail and that failure inevitably follows, eventually, on the heels of every success.
As with The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which, as we know, did super well and won lots of awards and was nominated for other awards it didn’t win and was made into a film), How to Get Filthy Rich… is both more and less than the sum of its parts. We’ll talk about the more first. The more comes from Hamid’s voice. He has a distinct clarity, an earnest simplicity, in which he addresses both YOU and the reader (and actively engages with the space between each) and so whether he is talking about an individual’s relationship with the state, the bioelectronics currents in our nerves or the dampening effect of love upon ambition, he manages to get to the nub of the point in a direct and accomplished fashion. There are moments (at the opening of chapter 2, for example, which concerns getting an education and involves a discussion of whether all books are in fact self help books of one form or another) in which Hamid tips his hat to Italo Calvino and there are few greater compliments that can be afforded a writer than to come within nodding distance of Calvino.
On the less front, Hamid still feels like a writer, despite all of his successes, who is still learning his trade. His chapters set out to do something and do it. Together, his chapters take us on a course. You could get no further than the title and understand the basic arc of the book (rags to riches to ‘rags’). Hamid is not a writer who you could describe as realistic, even as he is engaging with a very real world. His characters (YOU, for one, and YOU’s love interest, the pretty girl) are largely cyphers. The words he has chosen keep you reading, because he is a writer able to fashion a swishy sentence (the majority of which work very hard, in a sort of Amis like fashion), but there is a sense in which Hamid is skating upon the knowledge he has built up through experience (he has lived in Lahore, New York and London and so knows something of the world) – and it would be good if he could sit himself down, maybe carve himself a hole in the ice and spend a wee while fishing next time around. It would be good to have a moment to breathe, good to be able to look long and hard at the place in which the characters are.
Saying all of this: The Reluctant Fundamentalist did well. It’s highly likely How to Get Rich… will do well. Why fix something that aint broken? (To get better is the answer, of course. And it may be that Hamid will get better as he goes along just as a result of having time and success and all the rest of it.) The crucial question, though, as to whether Hamid is getting better right now is apposite. How to Get Rich… is not quite as good as The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It’s neither as satisfying or as surprising. It sets out to tell a story and it tells that story. It’s biggest revelation is that it isn’t really a self-help book. Which is not really any kind of revelation at all. It’s good enough. Just about. For now.
Any Cop?: We read How to Get Rich… on a flight back from Berlin, cover to cover within two hours. It was a perfectly fine read, a good light read for a flight, but when we were done we were done and it seems to us that Mohsin Hamid is ever so slightly better than that.