The Pakistani Novel of Class Comes of Age
by Anis Shivani
How to Get Filty Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. 228 pgs. Riverhead, April 2013. $26.95.
Mohsin Hamid has written a nearly flawless third novel, which begs to be seen as the concluding act of a trilogy. If his first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), was about Pakistani decadence prior to the calamitous changes brought on by the war on terror, and his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), delved deep into the psychic foundation of those changes, the new novel builds on elements of both earlier books but is more of a look at the future than the immediate past.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia recalls J. M. Coetzee more than any other writer, exhibiting the same detachment, suppressed rage at mortality, and constant ironic counterpoints that seem sufficient unto themselves, as well as a tendency to allegorize.
The deep telescoping and the immense compression of events—natural to allegory—is what lend Filthy Rich its power. The setting, though unnamed, is of course Pakistan—mostly Lahore, but also a subsidiary role for Karachi—and the journey of an ambitious man from bare subsistence in the village to outsized commercial success in the big city also takes place in recognizable Pakistan.
But there are ways in which this place threatens to leave the actual precincts of Pakistan, for example in the undying urge to freedom of the protagonist’s love interest throughout the novel—the “pretty girl” from his poor neighborhood who will go on to become a successful fashion model, and whose life intersects with the protagonist’s at various points in their lives.
Though the narrator marries another woman—with whom the romantic sparks never fly—the pretty girl is the true love of his life, and in the end, destitute and frail, they do finally consummate, in a way, what was always meant to be their conjugal destiny. The pretty girl, with her distinctly existential norms, is usually just this side of believable, and sometimes not so at all, when she chooses uncertainty over security. It is an idealization of woman, whom riches ultimately fail to capture.
The book is part of the growing genre of “how they get rich” Asian novels, typified in an earlier phase by Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) and now including such entries as Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire (2013). This narrative surge is rather inevitable considering South Asia’s recent pell-mell plunge into hyperactive postmodern globalization. Imposed upon ancient structures of tradition, the veneer of capitalist acquisitiveness sits uneasily, creating fertile material for the novelist. The situation is analogous to what William Dean Howells, Frank McTeague, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser had to deal with when America rapidly transformed into an urban industrialized society at the turn of the twentieth century.
Human relations—their sanctity, their rootedness in idealism, their permanence—suffer when capitalism takes over, and this Hamid documents at various stages of transformation, compressing (often incongruously) a century or more of metamorphosis within the parameters of his narrator’s lifetime.
Throughout Hamid uses the second-person to address would-be aspirants to success. The second-person has recently been overutilized in American fiction, primarily because it is a handy gimmick in workshop, and it comes with its sweet set of built-in dangers. Hamid makes us forget that we’re reading a manual for success, a book of advice for courtiers to courtiers, as the “you” in the narrative becomes increasingly less identified with the unnamed protagonist and more identified with the reader. The “you” in fact becomes an “I” (quite unnoticeably) which in turn becomes a “we” and finally a “he.” “He” of course hides a lot; novelists deploy the default voice to maintain a measure of deniability. “You” can be simultaneously accusatory as well as exculpatory. Hamid excels at these seamless, almost unnoticeable transitions.
The short, pseudo-profound prefaces at the beginning of each of the twelve chapters—philosophy on the cheap, if you will, a twelve-step program for ruthless entrepreneurs—create an added element of tension between detachment and emotion, as we are invited each time to briefly float on a soothing stream of wise words, only to quickly emerge into the maelstrom, losing our bearings, such as happens after this quiet introduction to chapter six, “Work for Yourself,” following which the narrator embarks on his entrepreneurial venture to sell polluted bottled water:
But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book 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 advice, the wisdom, the insight are all spurious, because there is in fact no way to get filthy rich in Asia without causing incalculable harm and violence.
The chapter titles and the introductory matter at the beginning of each chapter are in conflict with the narrative development, a way for Hamid to highlight his deep ambiguity toward prosperity in rising Asia. These are the novel’s chapter titles: Move to the City, Get an Education, Don’t Fall in Love, Avoid Idealists, Learn from a Master, Work for Yourself, Be Prepared to Use Violence, Befriend a Bureaucrat, Patronize the Artists of War, Dance with Debt, Focus on the Fundamentals, and Have an Exit Strategy. The chapter titles, like the prefatory material, don’t convey the degree to which the narrator’s life has spun out of control, so that in the end he’s outwitted by the very forces he’d managed to manipulate at the start of his career. One wouldn’t know, glancing at the title “Dance with Debt,” that it represented the narrator’s bankruptcy, or that “Have an Exit Strategy” referred to the narrator’s morbid preparations for death. This is a way of simultaneously exalting and undermining the stream-of-consciousness advisory ringing in everyone’s head in competitive Asia.
The lingo of self-help, particularly in its MBA or management consulting incarnation, is pervasive in rising Asia, replacing traditional idealist guides to behavior, such as the Tao Te Ching in China, or Persian and Islamic folklore in Pakistan. Consider the introduction to Chapter Eight, “Befriend a Bureaucrat,” which realistically assesses the powers of the capitalist state, instead of, for example, advising detachment or passivity:
No self-help book can be complete without taking into account our relationship with the state. For if there were a cosmic list of things that unite us, reader and writer, visible as it scrolled up and into the distance, like the introduction to some epic science-fiction film, then shining brightly on that list would be the fact that we exist in a financial universe that is subject to massive gravitational pulls from states. States tug at us. States bend us. And, tirelessly, states seek to determine our orbits.
Authorial intervention of this kind in the Victorian novel served a moral purpose. The Victorian author used to distance himself from the doings of his characters to clarify the ideal moral stance, to leave no ambiguity about where he stood. But for Hamid, and for other Asian novelists who have an ambiguous attitude toward the new prosperity, such intervention is a form of throwing up their hands at the hegemony of entrepreneurial discourse unmoored from traditional teachings. It functions as a sign of helplessness, indicating the novelist’s awareness that his advocacy of universal morality is drowned out by the single-minded pursuit of self-improvement. Hamid was sharply aware of the novelist’s diminished role as moral guide in the era of global hypercapitalism in The Reluctant Fundamentalist—it was almost the point of the earlier novel—but it’s even more true in Filthy Rich.
So Hamid has found one morbid discourse (the twenty-first century novel) to compete with another one (the self-help manual). The point of self-help manuals is that they eliminate philosophical ambiguity—as in the paradoxes of time-honored Asian teaching—which makes them losing propositions from the start. If one accomplishes what a self-help manual advises, one becomes an automaton in service to ideals not recognized by philosophy or religion. If one fails, one blames oneself rather than the shallowness of the advice. Self-help advice constitutes constant pressure with no victory in sight, and it is emerging in Asia—as it did in America in the early decades of the last century—along with the growth of spectacle and celebrity and consumerism.
Self-help advice itself is a form of consumerism, as is the literary novel when it becomes popular. The novel and the self-help book occupy competing emotional territory, since many in rising Asia will resort to the novel if self-help fails them. To fight against consumerism is as much of a losing endeavor for Asian novelists now as it was for American realists at the time of America’s great industrial transformation. Filthy Rich always knows how rapidly its form of social narrative is drowning in an ocean of specious individualistic advice.
Moving through the chapters of this intentionally overschematic saga—the narrator’s step-by-step conquest of the peculiarly Pakistani (and Asian) obstacles to success—is like rushing through the layers of an old-time newsreel, time flying by so swiftly that it stretches credibility. Yet in rising Asia this is precisely how fast things do take place (as was true of rising other continents in modernity).
Instead of epic scale, the novelist confronts the pace of change with mastery of characterization in miniature, with Nabokovian precision of description (as Hamid applies it to each of his characters and places) without the spare time a Nabokov might have had for lavish exposition.
There simply isn’t any spare time. This is a dominant motif of the novel, almost its key motivation, as old forms swiftly become unrecognizably new:
Meanwhile similar attempts, both official and non, seem to be under way to try to desiccate society itself, through among other things creeping restrictions on festivals and the public pursuit of fun, with a similar result, cracks, those widening fissures evident between young people, who appear to you divided as never before, split into myriad, incomprehensible tribes, signaling their affiliations with an automobile sticker, a bare shoulder, or some arcane permutation in the possibilities of facial hair.
Freedom in this novel assumes fanciful new forms of self-imposed repression. On the one hand, there is no rising Asia, only sinking Asia: an old-fashioned trope like an absconding brother-in-law can sink the whole enterprise, decades of hard work and the care and feeding of the powers-that-be gone to waste in an instant. On the other hand, of course there is rising Asia, steeped in new technologies of communication and imitation, where everyone does have a chance to ascend.
To entangle these conflicting ideas in as short a space as Hamid does is what leads to an explosive dynamic of awareness, makes this a novel for the ages, with deserved comparisons to The Great Gatsby.
As Filthy Rich progresses, it acquires increasing layers of detachment which, in Coetzeean fashion, somehow work to enhance emotional urgency.
In chapter Nine, “Patronize the Artists of War,” Hamid describes the narrator’s encounter with the head of a military-run corporation, eager to build a housing colony with a secure, permanent supply of pure water— water, that most precious of commodities in rising Asia, the narrator’s lifelong means to riches, at first in the form of adulterated supply, but later more or less acceding to standards.
Here is Hamid’s appropriation of the camera-eye technique to describe the insignificance of individuals in the global security apparatus:
A series of CCTV cameras observes various stages of your progress through the cantonment. Through their monochromatic optical sensors the expensive metallic finish of your sedan dulls to a ratty gray. Behind you are scenes little changed since Independence, images of well-manicured lawns, mess halls with regimental insignia, trees painted waist-high in skirts of white. Homes of the descendants of corps and division commanders abut those of oligarchical commercial magnates, and everywhere is a sense of unyielding order and arboreal grace increasingly atypical of your city, much of the rest of which seethes outside this fortified garrison enclave like some great migratory horde besieging a royal castle.
When decline comes to this bustling preapocalyptic expanse, the zoo seems to be an apt concluding metaphor, and here is Hamid’s precise description of this (antiquated) venue:
You explore the city’s main colonial-era museum and its pungently aromatic zoo, attractions you last visited when your son was a schoolboy. At the zoo you are surprised by how inexpensive tickets are, and further by the size of the facility, which seems bigger than you recall, though you had expected the opposite to be the case. The pretty girl marvels at the aviary, you at hippopotamuses slipping daintily into a mud pool from the grassy banks of their enclosure. She draws to your attention the large number of young men who are here, their accents and dialects often hailing from remote districts. They call to the animals in amusement and wonder, or sit in clusters on plentiful benches, taking advantage of the shade. The zoo has signs listing the daily dietary intake of its most prominent residents, and occasionally a literate visitor is to be heard reading to his fellows the prodigious quantities of food required to maintain such and such beast.
There is also something of the classic twentieth-century Japanese novelist’s sage discernment in these descriptions, a desire to register minute gradations of feelings without getting carried away by the novelist’s verbal skills, amounting to a deep, mature humility.
A similar vein of serene acceptance (which is almost inhuman in its dimensions, though no loss endearing for being so) familiar from Coetzee appears in a late passage when the narrator looks the other way as the pretty girl’s servant, after her death, takes charge of his care:
The factotum stays, in part out of loyalty to the pretty girl and in part because it is easy to skim money from you. You do not begrudge him this. You would do the same. You have done the same. It is a poor person’s right. Instead you are grateful for his help, for his refusal to sever you from your few remaining possessions by violence.
Consider also this passage describing the pretty girl’s last days:
Medications do not relieve her pain, but they make it less central, and in her center builds instead a desire to detach. It costs her to be touched, as she approaches her finish, companionship softly irritating her, like the remaining strand of flesh binding a loose milk tooth to its jaw.
This is as close to Coetzee as I have seen any modern novelist come, and it is not at all derivative either.
As one finishes Filthy Rich, the stink of death (or mortal corruption) retrospectively pervades everything one has read before, such as this earlier passage describing the narrator’s visit to a politician to pay a bribe to facilitate his operations:
The politician’s working environment is structured in the manner of the courts of princes of old, namely with one set of waiting rooms for commoners, another for those of rank, and an inner sanctum occupied by him and a contingent of his advisers. Your transaction is conducted simultaneously with multiple unrelated strands of endeavor, some public, some personal, and apparently without purpose, or rather with no purpose other than amusement. An extended lunch is under way, and so everything happens to the sounds of chewing and with repeated gestures that look like multi-fingered snaps but are in reality attempts to dislodge grease, rice, and bits of edible residue without the use of water or tissues.
This is Hamid’s first truly mature book, and the confidence he shows in not desperately needing to represent Pakistan to any particular constituency is reflected in the form and structure. His first novel was a young man’s self-consciously jaded representation of his generation’s depravities, in a transparent act of purging. The second novel was similarly purgative, as he sought to distance himself from his engagement with the West’s capitalist project, punctuated by his return to Pakistan. In this third novel, he could care less about explicating modern Pakistan’s pathologies, though that is ostensibly the scaffold.
The Coetzeean obsessions with mortality, aging, the stages of illness, the indignities of hospitalization and hospice attention, and the forever chastening chimera of unfulfilled desire, these can only be handled adeptly by the most mature of novelists.
Indeed, there seems to have been a quantum leap of wisdom between The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Filthy Rich, which can only be explained by the author’s willingness to submerge himself in the vile sheath of corruption and uncertainty that is contemporary Pakistan. And he manages never to lose his sense of humor. That alone is a monumental accomplishment.
Anis Shivani's novel Karachi Raj will be published in 2013. His books include The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), Against the Workshop (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). His novel in progress is called Abruzzi, 1936. He has recently finished a poetry book called Soraya, and is working on another called Empire. He is also writing a new book of criticism called Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in the New American Novel. (5/2013)