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Jim Cullen: Review of Mohsin Hamid's "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" (Riverhead, 2013)

Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was recently published by Oxford University Press. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia solidifies Mohsin Hamid's claim as a major contemporary novelist. It showcases what have become a familiar set of gifts, among them a compelling voice, a keen feel for structure, and, given his literary sensibility, a surprisingly efficient narrative drive. Like his two previous books, Moth Smoke (2000) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), this one is brief. And yet in the space of less than 230 small pages he renders an entire life that seems simultaneously rich in detail and resonant as a fable.

Like The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- the film version, directed by Mira Nair, will be released domestically next month -- Hamid pulls off the difficult technique of second person narration. The last time around, it was deployed to implicate the reader, whose uneasiness with the narrator was very much the point (is he, or isn't he, a terrorist? Are you, or aren't you, a racist?). This time, the effect is more lyrical, if one can speak of lyricism in a book of sometimes brutal honesty. But Filthy Rich is also marked by moments of seeming omniscience, as the narrator describes events it is impossible for him to have observed first-hand, a violation of literary convention that works beautifully, contributing to that fable-like character.

Indeed, Hamid seems thoroughly conversant with literary theory -- particularly reader-centered literary theory -- and seems to implement it effortlessly. In what is clearly another meta-narrative device, the novel deconstructs a familiar prose genre: the self-help book, specifically the business self-help guide of the kind that apparently is quite popular in the developing world. He captures its rhythms in his chapter titles, some of which have a puckish air: "Move to the City"; "Get an Education"; "Be Prepared to Use Violence"; "Befriend a Bureaucrat." But the book's chatty air is also gracefully studded with sociological detail that convey vivid depictions of abject poverty and vertiginous modernization.

The plot of the novel can be summed up easily. A boy from an unnamed rural village is lucky in terms of birth order and his arrival in the late twentieth century. (In one more illustration of Hamid's deftness, we know this because in his youth he's a DVD delivery boy; since we're with him to old age, the story must proceed far well into the 21st century, something Hami manages to do credibly without resorting to tinny sci-fi devices). He attends university, leaves some youthful radicalism behind, and founds a bottled-water business empire. This of course requires moral compromises as well as the guile in evading those eager to take away what he has. It also requires a reckoning with the cost of success in terms of his relationships with those around him.

Like The Reluctant Feminist, too, Filthy Rich is also a love story. It centers on an unavailable female whose love (or lack thereof) is at least initially indeterminate. The last time around, the woman was a WASP American. This time she comes from the hometown of the narrator himself -- she's named "the pretty girl." She too finds fortune, but must do so by a different means: leveraging her beauty. Hamid is keenly attuned to the harsh limits imposed on women in his world -- the mother and sister of the narrator are among the more poignantly sketched characters -- and the vulnerability even of those women (including the narrator's wife, who chooses a very different path than the pretty girl) who somehow thread the needle and wrest a life for themselves. He also never fails to humanize even the most brutal of characters, like the assassin assigned to kill the narrator. His portrayal of old age -- something he evidently has not experienced himself -- is notable for its painful, yet generous, clarity.

Hamid's great theme in all his work is social mobility, downward as well as upward. His sense of place (south Asia, with a locus of Pakistan) is unmistakable, and yet there's an elemental drama and deceptive simplicity to his protagonists that evokes the London of Great Expectations or the New York of The Great Gatsby. The United States is never referred to directly in Filthy Rich, though it's perhaps more than ethnocentrism that leads one to suspect that the movies the narrator and the pretty girl love as children involve a vision of success with an American accent. In any case, the book closes with what appears to be an allusion to the conclusion of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia pulls no punches in its harsh portrayal of the material world, in the broadest sense of that term. But it is a deeply moving and satisfying tale. That's principally because of Hamid's sense of craft -- a penchant for subtraction in boiling the elements of narrative art down to their essence. His honesty can be hard to take. But you're glad to have him share it with you.