Mohsin Hamid: How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Riverhead, 2013)

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project. When you watch a TV show or a movie, what you see looks like what it physically represents. A man looks like a man, a man with a large bicep looks like a man with a large bicep, and a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama” looks like a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama.”
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.

When this book showed up as the June selection for my library’s monthly reading group, I remembered I’d already read “The Third-Born”, an excerpt of the first chapters in The New Yorker (available online). While I appreciated several things about it, I wrote at the time: “Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.” So given the opportunity to read it – and knowing it was a fairly short book – I figured I might as well go ahead and read the rest of it.

I had much the same reaction to the novel as I’d had to the excerpt: I appreciated many things about it, but it didn’t reach me.

I like unusual approaches, and framing a pretty standard rags-to-riches-to-fall life story as a self-help book is a clever idea; I liked that. I liked that there are no names in the book, yet we always know exactly who is who; people are identified by their relationship to the narrator. I liked that it dips into metafiction from time to time, talking about the purpose of writing a book and the process of reading. I liked that the narrator, and The Pretty Girl, are on similar trajectories, and end up in similar circumstances. In short, I liked the way the story was told. I just didn’t like the story all that much.

In some ways, I think that’s the nature of the beast. We have a narrator who seems to have intense emotions from all he says and does, but they remain deep inside him. For example, The Pretty Girl. She first appears in the self-help chapter about not falling in love if your objective is to become filthy rich. It’s pretty clear that he would’ve rather had her than wealth at that point; her departure, instead of being the regret of his life, becomes a lucky break. That’s the sound of a broken heart, trying to make the best of things.

Lots of interesting ideas came out during the group’s discussion. No names are used in the book, not a place name or a person’s name. The setting is left open: when I’d read the excerpt, which was titled differently, I’d thought of Northern Africa or the Middle East; most readers thought Pakistan or Afghanistan; one woman was surprised, as she’d vividly envisioned it in China. Another reader mentioned it’s not at all about getting filthy rich in Asia, bringing up the point: it’s about everything else, and maybe that’s a key to the narrator. In the closing chapters, he is finally united with his lifelong love, a woman on a similar trajectory – first up, then down – and only then perhaps is he filthy rich.

Another reader raised the question: could the son be the author, writing about his father? That idea appeals to me, though it’d be hard to see how the son would have access to the information about the early years. This leads to another observation: periodically, the narration shifts to reveal the inner thoughts of one character or another; are these actual thoughts, or are they the imaginings of the writer? In that case, is it possible this is penned by the son, who has imagined and pieced together his father’s early life from family stories he’s heard? This becomes a stronger possibility as I re-read the opening:

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author…
None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

The more I think about it, the more I see this book as written by someone not the narrator. It could be a son’s – not memorial, exactly, maybe imagining would be a better word – of his father. A way for him to come to know the man he never knew, the man who kept his feelings deep inside where they wouldn’t betray him. But I have a different idea.

The one place where the narrator’s feelings are explicit and extreme are in Chapter Seven, Prepare to Use Violence, when he fears gang reprisals; the terror was palpable to me as I read, as opposed to his love and even lust for the Pretty Girl; or, for that matter, his drive to become Filthy Rich. The son was not yet born at this time. But the narrator was married; his wife, at 20, was studying law, and per their agreement, she would postpone childbearing until her education was complete. I wonder if the wife, later ex-wife, wrote this. One of the most prominent features is the narrator’s distance from his wife; she just appears out of the blue, in this chapter on violence, in fact, and she’s a muted character throughout. I wonder if she’s writing his biography, and the fear is so exposed because it was her fear.

Interesting book. I’m glad my library book group selected it.

Mohsin Hamid: “The Third Born” from The New Yorker, 9/24/12

New Yorker Art: Martin Roemers/Anastasia/Panos

New Yorker Art: Martin Roemers/Anastasia/Panos

One cold, dewy morning, you are huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since, wealth-obsessed though you will come to be, you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.

Insert my usual rant about the first chapters of novels-in-progress not being short stories. If you read this (and it’s available online), expect an introduction, a series of scenes as exposition to (presumably) the story of the little boy growing into his promised wealth-obsessed adulthood.

But it’s still very much worth reading. There’s some great stuff here.

The family itself is wonderfully drawn. Father is a cook (“a craft of spice and oil”) , travelling to work in the city and coming home only sporadically. He isn’t disconnected from his own days as a son: “His own father derived considerable pleasure from the daily progress of crops in the fields, and in this, at least insofar as agriculture is analogous to the development of children, the two men are similar…. He sees the labor by which a farmer exchanges his allocation of time in this world for an allocation of time in this world. Here, in the heady bouquet of nature’s pantry, your father sniffs mortality.” Mom is likewise connected to the older generation, shown in vivid detail as she sweeps under the gaze of her mother-in-law: “Your mother and grandmother play a waiting game. The older woman waits for the younger woman to age; the younger woman waits for the older woman to die. It is a game both will inevitably win.”

What struck me about this family, in which the second-person protagonist (sorry; hey, try it, it’s not so bad, once you stop complaining about it, this second-person thing) is the Third Born of the title, is the transition of the family within itself and within the community, and the boy’s role in both. It’s a story (well, the chapter) of a clan becoming a family as they move from farm to city. I’m a little hazy on notions of tribalism and clans; I know the terms, vaguely, from long-ago Sociology 101 courses, but they’re still not something I actually understand. This story (chapter) brings me a little closer. In his fascinating Page-Turner interview with Cressida Leyshon, Hamid discusses the difference in terms of his own writing style:

Nuclear families are easier to write, at least for me. They have fewer moving parts. But the clan is important. It’s vital to understanding the world. The problem is that I gravitate toward compression. Slender books.…[C]lan-writing can become essayistic. But I think there are ways to re-appropriate essayistic writing in fiction. Certainly I’m trying to figure out ways to do so. Tell, don’t show. Sometimes.

I see this change, as the family moves to the city, as a move (with the attendant turmoil any move entails) towards modernity; it’s a key element of the chapter (I’m not sure if it’s part of the (uncompleted) book as well). But it does strike me, having read the interview, as “essayistic.” I feel like I’ve learned a lot after reading this selection, rather than I’ve connected with a character. And I feel like I’m fine with that, since it’s very interesting learning; I think I agree with Hamid that understanding the clan is “vital to understanding the world.” For someone more globally sophisticated than I, someone who doesn’t need this basic education, it might be less interesting. And for someone looking for a gripping story with a satisfying ending – sorry.

That’s the keyword for this story (chapter): interesting.

I’m interested in the role of birth order:

Yet you are fortunate. Fortunate in being third-born.

There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like your parents’ fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree….

Third means your success is decoupling from that of your kin.

I’m also interested in the writing choices Hamid has made: like using second person (“I found it pretty liberating as a form: you can move from a hyper-intimate first-person-like perspective to a cosmically removed third-person-like one very easily”). That sounds like something for Zin’s Second Person Study (I’ll have to include this story therein) – second person allows shifts in intimacy, the intimacy between the character and the reader, and between the character and other characters. I’m not sure this story (chapter) needed to be in second person, but I’m fully behind the idea that the author needed to write it in second person. The effect, for me, is that the “you” character seems closer to me than to his family. Which isn’t to say I feel close to him; not really. I feel a solitude from him, that he’s all alone in the universe, and I just happen to be looking through a peephole at him, following everything from his perspective, but still at a distance.

But Hamid made another choice: to obscure details of setting. No characters are named, which is not that unusual, but usually makes a statement about anomie or interchangeability. Here, his purpose is somewhat different:

I wanted to use Pakistan as a template, but not be bound by it. Not having any names in the novel, except for continent names, was a way for me to de-exoticize the context, to see it fresh. You have to think differently when there’s religion but no words “Islam” or “Christianity,” food but no Afghani tikka or Wiener schnitzel, beloveds but no Laila or Juliet. I wanted to find my way to something universal, and since I work with words, I tried to teach myself through selective abstinence.

Now you have to admit, that’s – dare I say it – interesting. I’d envisioned North Africa (I’m confused about betel nuts; I need to get that straight), but sure, I can see Pakistan. What I love, though, is the concept.

Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.