The fact that Mohsin Hamid characterizes his abbreviated novel as a “self-help book” is only one of this engaging book’s many quirks. Neither the characters nor settings have names. And the author writes in the second person, addressing the protagonist as “you” throughout.
Hamid uses tenets for getting ahead financially in “rising Asia” as a structure for setting out a straightforward rags-to-riches plot. The chapter titles include “Move to the City,” “Avoid Idealists,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat” and “Dance with Debt.”
Of course, the aim of the book, as Hamid tells his Asian central character, is to show you how to earn top dollar. “And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot” with Hepatitis E. When the young boy expresses the will to survive, his father, somewhat inexplicably, decides to move the family from its village to the city.
Although there is never any real attempt to plumb the reasons for the protagonist’s determination to become rich, his trajectory from impoverished youth to business mogul has begun. The author has the knack for making a few words cover a lot of territory. Despite its cursory approach to plot development, some descriptions are efficiently elegant. For example, the office of the bureaucrat in which the ascending businessman bribes the appropriate government functionary is “spacious yet dowdy, as such offices often are, with dusty windows, framed portraits of a pair of national leaders, one dead and one alive, and chunky wooden seating in need of reupholstery.” Characters, such as the brother-in-law who works for the protagonist, are developed in only a few, effective sentences.
Each chapter begins with a passage that considers self-help books in general and relates the tenet reflected in the chapter title to what is going on with our character at that point in his life. “Get an Education” informs the protagonist that “Indeed, all books, each and every book ever written, could be said to be offered to the reader as a form of self-help. Textbooks, those whores, are particularly explicit in acknowledging this, and it is with a textbook that you, at this moment, after several years in the city, are walking down the street.”
The chapters skip from one stage of his life to the next, sometimes 10 or more years apart. When he is a teenager delivering made-to-order pirated DVDs in “Don’t Fall in Love,” he meets “the pretty girl,” whom, the title of the chapter notwithstanding, he falls for. The attraction is mutual, but both are more focused on getting ahead than on pursuing possible lives together. Because of her beauty, the pretty girl also gains some success, first as a model, later as a TV personality and then in business. Their paths cross on occasion for the rest of their lives, causing the reader to wonder what might have been.
In “Learn from a Master,” the protagonist goes to work for a small business that sells canned goods to shopkeepers. The business model is based on erasing the expiration dates of barely-outdated canned goods and selling the cans with new dates at low, low prices. The master is a “middle-aged man with the long fingers of an artist and the white-tufted ear hair of a primate resistant to lethal tympanic parasites.” The self-help lesson here is that “where money-making is concerned, nothing compresses the time frame needed to leap from my-shit-just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence like an apprenticeship with someone who already has the angles all figured out.”
The rising businessman starts his own company, processing and selling bottled water, a product in demand by the wealthy and the growing middle class (“Work for Yourself”). As he ages and the business greatly expands, his experiences reflect the challenges in rising Asia: nepotism and cronyism, government corruption and bribery, the violence and physical danger faced by the wealthy, and the important roles of the military and modern surveillance. In “Be Prepared to Use Violence,” he is told that becoming filthy rich “requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else.”
As a middle-age man he marries a woman half his age. He develops genuine affection for her, but he is so busy getting ahead that his inattention pushes her away. He is able to demonstrate his love for their son only on a schedule that accommodates his obligations at work and motivation to improve his economic position.
In the end, our protagonist learns that attaining wealth comes with personal costs, as the book’s final chapters, “Focus on the Fundamentals” and “Have an Exit Strategy,” reveal that even the best business plans don’t work out as intended.