10 June, 2013Issue 22.4AsiaFictionLiterature

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Novel Conceits

Nakul Krishna

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising AsiaMohsin Hamid
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Hamish Hamilton, 2013
240 pages
ISBN 978-0241144664


The title of Mohsin Hamid’s new book is unavoidably ironic. He begins by affecting the manner of a self-help book whose “objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia”. But he promptly undermines the conceit in a sentence too specific for the genre: “to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning.”

If you’re the sort of person who reads this sort of book, that is to say, a work of literary fiction in English, it is relatively unlikely that you began life in a village where people “relieve themselves downstream of where they wash their clothes, a place in turn downstream of where they drink” and where “Farther upstream, the village before yours does the same.” Hamid’s second-person pronoun cannot then point to a putative reader, specific or abstracted; here again the resemblance to a self-help book breaks down. The pronoun is more naturally read as referring to a hypothetical listener: a listener who is also the novel’s central character. This device casts the reader as an eavesdropper on an intimate conversation between narrator and protagonist and the effect, far from arch, is humane and often touching.

The titles of Hamid’s chapters—”Move to the City”, “Get an Education”, “Don’t Fall in Love” and so forth—move the plot along briskly. Soon enough, the character we found huddled and shivering in the first chapter ends up, if briefly, a minor tycoon of the bottled water trade, plying his insanitary wares in a country that, like the setting of Salman Rushdie’s Shame (1983), is “not quite Pakistan”. Certainly, the country is never named. It is another one of the book’s formal conceits that there is nary a proper noun in sight, with the exception of the continent in the title and, inevitably in a book about capitalism, “America”. Even the characters of this novel remain nameless; each person in these pages hovers somewhere in the uneasy zone between the archetypes of ritual theatre and the three-dimensional figures of realist fiction, too specific to be mere types but nevertheless denied the individuality which a name imparts.

A plot summary of a traditional sort is singularly inapt for a novel so stridently unconventional, but it will give some sense of what happens in its pages if we note that the narrator’s injunction not to fall in love is triumphantly violated. The “pretty girl”, the character who comes closest to three-dimensionality, becomes a figure of counterpoint, her brief success as a fashion model mirroring “your” own equally brief status as water magnate. The repeatedly deferred fruition of the love affair builds up to a tragicomic scene of geriatric lovemaking that is, in its tenderness and restraint, one of the novel’s finer passages.

Hamid’s prose is consistently muted: each sentence is perfectly judged and no idiom is so specific as to give away—if there is anything to give away—where the book is “actually” set. The book’s setting might well, were it not for its allusions to a coup-happy military, be India or Indonesia. Asia and a fortiori “Rising Asia” are not notions of any political significance in these countries, however frequently they might be invoked in the pages of the Financial Times. The deliberately half-realised landscapes of Hamid’s anonymous country make for a subversive joke about journalistic generalities. A few chapters in, yet another conceit reveals itself. Decades pass but the technology remains constant: this is a world that resists the flow of time. Here is a novelist struggling against every kind of geographical, historical, even metaphysical particular that might tie his novel down and sneaking in along the way another joke at the expense of an old orientalist trope about the timeless east.

An extraordinary sentence late in Hamid’s book has its central character in hospital, “plugged into machines” on which he now depends for survival. The experience of “an unseen network suddenly made physical” becomes the occasion for an epiphany:

The inanimate strands that cling to your precariously still-animate form themselves connect to other strands, to the hospital’s power system, its backup generator, its information technology infrastructure, the unit that produces oxygen, the people who refill and circulate the tanks, the department that replenishes medications, the trucks that deliver them, the factories at which they are manufactured, the mines where requisite raw materials emerge, and on and on, from your body, into your room, across the building, and out the doors to the world beyond, mirroring in stark exterior reality preexisting and mercifully unconsidered systems within, the veins and nerves and sinews and lymph nodes without which there is no you. It is good you sleep.

This is audacious stuff. Knowingly poised where the story of an individual life overlaps with the facts of international political economy, this passage has a moral or two about the smugness of the novel’s (relatively) filthy rich readers outside Asia, satisfied with the nameless figures of journalistic fable. The New York Times Book Review thinks Hamid’s success “gestures to a new direction for the novel”. The critical excitement is understandable. Hamid’s success is owed in part to a recognition that the characteristic devices of the (let us say) Victorian novel work best when depicting the middle-class commercial societies in which those devices were forged. It is also owed to the further recognition that those techniques might be less than well suited to fiction from societies “half-formed”, in V. S. Naipaul’s unsettling phrase, and far removed from the experiences of (say) Victorian England. Hamid is evidently one of that band of writers who, as Zadie Smith put it, “know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the internet works, maths, philosophy, but […] they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever.”

Yet it would be a great shame if the fiction of globalisation came to be tied to a single formal agenda, and a straightforward mistake to think that Hamid has cracked the formula, that the conceits of his novel might be a template for any future “novel of globalisation”. It is good to see a formal experiment adroitly realised, but it might be the (not unhappy) fate of Hamid’s achievement to be a singular one. There is no single experience of globalisation, and consequently no one solution to the question of how best to write about it; there is only the irreducible variety of human life and the talent of the individual novelist.

Hamid’s success is as much a vindication of formal experimentation as it is a reminder of what people saw in the realist novel in the first place and what Hamid’s compatriots—Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie, to name only the ones well known in the West—continue to see in it. With its named characters in named countries where the years pass as they do in the world outside the novel, the Victorian novel is supple in a way that the experimenting arriviste must struggle to emulate. The novel of conceits, even when it succeeds, can only be a one-off.

Nakul Krishna is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor at the Oxonian Review.