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From Rags to Riches in Lahore: Mohsin Hamid's 'How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia'

12/03/2013 13:51 GMT | Updated 11/05/2013 10:12 BST

The first ten imperatives of Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia fulfil, with sly wit and humour, the premise of the self-help book the author sets up for his third novel - a novel burdened with great expectations given the outstanding success of his second. The story, ostensibly a mode d'emploi, told cannily in the second person (indeed, the narrative mode of self-help books and of Camus, an influence Hamid cites often) of a boy from the rural underclass who dreams big and becomes a corporate tycoon by sticking to the script Hamid writes for him in clear, concise dos: "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" and "dance with debt" is vintage boy-done-good, somewhat reminiscent of Vikas Swarup's Q and A on which Danny Boyle's stupendously successful Slumdog Millionaire was based (Hamid cannot be accused of not having his finger on the pulse of the prevailing zeitgeist, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was also very timely, hugely successful and Mira Nair's film of his second novel should go on general release very soon).

The protagonist falls in but does not capitulate to love which while it makes the tale tantalising also generates the frisson and the angst one would expect from a novel set in a chaotic urban metropolis which remains unnamed but is a clear stand-in for Hamid's native Lahore. "You have thrived to the sound of the city's great whooshing thirst," he says of the engine which motors the main character's progression from DVD delivery boy to wealthy businessman who wields considerable power. Hamid starts off with the too-clever-by-half voice which made The Reluctant Fundamentalist faintly annoying and although this and the self-conscious ploy of the second person grates initially, he has a narrative which has stood the test of time. Maybe it is the realisation of this potential - the universality of the tale - that leads him not to name any of his characters. It is either a generic "pretty girl" or the strictly relational: "Your brother-in-law," "her assistant" etc. The aspirational tale of his "You," even if familiar, is compelling and Hamid's psychological insight into his characters' minds and machinations is a shade sharper than his earlier novels.

Hamid does women particularly well. Mothsmoke had the smouldering Mumtaz, The Reluctant Fundamentalist the elusive Erica. Here we have a female we only know as the "Pretty Girl." What his leading ladies have in common is agency: minds of their own. The lot of most women in the rising Asia he sets his story in, however, does not go un-noticed. There is the sharply etched but short-lived mother of the main character who lives a life of destitution till her obliteration through cancer but she is peripheral to the story. Hamid rather poignantly describes the drudgery of her daily life in the act of squatting: "Squatting is energy efficient, better for the back and hence ergonomic, and it is not painful. But done for hours and days and weeks and years its mild discomfort echoes in the mind like muffled screams from a subterranean torture chamber. It can be borne endlessly, provided it is never acknowledged."

He observes also, with intelligence and beauty, the relationship between her and 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 Hamid does fairly successfully here and for most of his novel is establish an economy with words. The present tense gives the writing an immediacy and the manner in which the narrative is structured lends itself well to the terse, pared-down prose Hamid continues to hone. But, he also appears intent on showing us the dab hand he is at attempting the Proustian sentence: "In modern combat, the fighter pilot, racing high above the earth at twice the speed of sound, absorbs different streams of information with each eye, radar reflections and heat signatures with one, say and the glint of sunlight on distant metal with the other, a feat requiring years of retraining of the mind and sensory organs, a painstaking human rewiring, or upgrade, if you will, while on the ground the general sees his and disparate other contemporary narratives play out simultaneously, indeed as the emerging-market equity trader does, and as the rapid-fire TV remote user and the multiple-computer-window opener do, all of us learning to combine this information, to find patterns in it, inevitably to look for ourselves in it, to reassemble out of the present-time stories of numerous others the lifelong story of a plausible unitary self."

There are several instances of sage observation. Where he writes robustly of ascent, he writes perceptively of decline. Here is how he describes the second heart attack of the principal character: "To be a man whose life requires being plugged into machines, multiple machines, in your case interfaces electrical, gaseous, and liquid, is to experience the shock of an unseen network suddenly made physical, as a fly experiences a cobweb."

The affect of the novel also derives from the extensive research Hamid appears to have undertaken but wears lightly in its execution. Indeed, in interviews and at book readings he strenuously denies undertaking research per se - most recently at the Lahore Literature Festival (lahorelitfest.com). He wants to be considered more of a careful listener, an observer of the human condition.

What might leave the reader a little mystified is the end, the import of the last two instalments of the dos. Was Hamid struggling to wrap things up (a publisher's deadline perhaps) or does the - apparent - complexity add up to something philosophically significant, this reader at least was unable to tell? But the story of his "You" dressed up as a self-help book will resonate with and speak, in parts, to many a self-made Pakistani and, given his celebrity, many more across the globe.