Riverhead, March 2013
reviewed by Tim Horvath
As a teenager I stumbled upon Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea in the art section of the chain bookstore at the Cross County Mall. I felt aggrieved, not so much for the crime of misshelving as for the fact that someone had simply tossed it there without looking past the title, victories for laziness and literalness. Looking back now, my outrage seems too earnest, a bit precious, and lacking in imagination. Why shouldn’t some unsuspecting art-lover pick up Pavic’s work of fiction and fall headlong into its story before she or he knew what was afoot? Why not let novels gussy themselves up in the costumes of other genres, go incognito? For that matter, why even limit them to the bookstore—let them lurk surreptitiously amidst the pomegranates, nestle amid the exotic, scandalously-overpriced mustards, I say now.
I do have a fantasy that some reader with guard lowered—maybe a bit tipsy, or maybe mesmerized by the tipsyfying lettering on its cover, or maybe just truly desperate for the quickest, most painless shortcut to wealth—might very well pick up Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and believe it is just that: a how-to guide rather than a novel. Unlike Pavic’s book, which announces itself as a novel pretty much straight out of the gate, you could skim a few pages of Hamid’s novel and remain under the misconception that you were still perusing the pages of a manual. A bizarre manual, no question, one which calls attention to the problematic nature of the self and to the very notion of self-help every step of the way, and one which makes outrageously specific and unwarranted assumptions about the reader (unless you really are a “young jaundiced village boy” with “radish juice dribbling from the corners of your lips and forming a small patch of mud on the ground”). Yet, doling out just enough advice to keep the conceit alive, Hamid regales us with story, and that is where we get filthy rich.
Though Hamid has pulled it off twice in succession with The Reluctant Fundamentalist and now his latest book, it’s rare to see the second-person point of view used successfully, especially in a novel. The writer risks alienating the reader, throwing a chasm between the flesh-and-blood turner of pages and the projected narratee, or at the very least rousing her or him from what John Gardner famously called “the continuous waking dream” of fiction. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been unhypnotizable. There’s part of me that embraces this as a point of personal pride—can’t lull this preternaturally skeptical dude into a state of enthrallment and then abscond with his wallet/morals/dignity. Another part of me has always felt a tad ripped off. This part feels a touch of envy for those who have squawked like chickens and flapped their arms in front of hundreds of people only to swear up and down afterward that they weren’t aware of a thing. How lucky to be so uninhibited, to shrug off conscious will and all its attendant neuroses, to be handed a “Get Out of Utter Humiliation Free” card. On a couple of occasions, people have attempted to hypnotize me for one reason or another: a college buddy with whom I shared a fascination with mysticism and the psyche, and later, a psychiatrist who was trying to help me with balance issues. I’ve listened to cassette tapes with patterns that promised to lull the brain until it skipped through fields of theta-waves of grain. In each case, there was some inner holdout, some Henry Fonda of the mental jury who refused to get with the program and eventually mucked it up for all the other, more susceptible brain-parts.
And that’s the precipice on which any second person narrative is forever dancing—so very many chances for the spell to be broken. Hamid avoids plummeting in, I think, in this case by mixing genres together. Self-help, in some ways, is the polar opposite of literature. Self-help books attempt to prescribe, to distill, to reduce, to simplify—to yield you The Secret methods that the author had the wisdom or Indy Jones-like pluck to uncover and is selfless enough to bequeath upon you for a small price. Literature, in contrast, is that relentless complicator of lives, the genre that refuses to spill forth its tenets at any price, that entertains and may even instruct, but only indirectly and demanding sweat equity, the hard work of ambiguity, and offering nothing you could bullet-point on a cheat sheet and laminate. As Hamid brilliantly points out early on, there is a sense in which any book is a sort of self-help book—for why would we read anything if not in part because our selves are seeking sustenance and guidance of a kind, even if tacit rather than explicit?
Mixing such disparate, even contradictory genres has the spellbinding effect of, say, listening to Apocalyptica, the cellists playing Metallica, or the Bad Plus’s jazz rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Even if, as is the case for me, you’ve heard the Nirvana song a hundred times, so that it long ago ceased to startle and wilt you in the way that it once did, hearing it in this new form, this new language or incarnation, breathes new vigor into it. Hamid does something comparable with the rags-to-riches and boy-meets-girl stories, each of which we may have become inured to through the sheer glut of them in popular culture, from Horatio Alger to 500 Days of Summer. The new hybrid genre that Hamid generates through cross-breeding can come across as determined and pragmatic at times—“Excessive fertility is here a liability, not an asset as historically it has been in the countryside, where food was for the most part grown rather than bought…” It can also come off as callous and heartless; one chapter, which will speak particularly to fans of Breaking Bad, bears the Brechtian title “Be Prepared to Use Violence.” Yet contra what I would expect, this distance, in this particular work, makes the story more engaging and effective. Surprisingly so. As a reader, I’m typically drawn to work that verges on prose poetry, writing suffused with lyricism—I love me some immemorial elms and their innumerable bees. Here, the scarcity of the lyrical means we savor it that much more, the son who is a “big-cheeked, bowl-haircut-sporting, navel-high orator,” the lock of hair which “reliably bring[s] his senescent heart to a canter.” And in some of the more violent and heartwrenching scenes, there’s no question that Hamid steers miles clear of sentimentality and melodrama. We recognize that Hamid is likely suggesting that it takes a certain degree of numbness to rise in social class in the way that his “you” does, plus an understanding and manipulation of society and its structures—whether in Rising Asia or America or most anywhere—rather than just a shoring up of the self.
Perhaps the most unexpected twist, given all this, is how powerful and emotional the ending of the book turns out to be. I take it that this is partly Hamid’s point—it’s one thing when narrative that has been steadily tapping into our empathy leads to its emotional climax with the force of inevitability, another entirely when it comes seemingly out of nowhere—when George Saunders transmutes laughter into something quite different, when a “How To” book comes bursting out of the pomegranates like Demeter in mourning. In the end, Hamid weaves in some metafictional moments most reminiscent of the final chapter of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried¸ still, to me, possibly the most stirring moment in contemporary literature, thanks in large part to the emotional velocity O’Brien has been building toward every step of the way. Hamid didn’t have me in quite the state of weeping that O’Brien induced in me the first time I read that one, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t moved. Ah, the things we’ll do when we stop worrying about whether we’re hypnotized and let our guard down anyway.
Tim Horvath is the author of Understories (Bellevue Literary Press), and Circulation (sunnyoutside), as well as stories in New South, Western Humanities Review, and many other journals. He teaches creative writing in the BFA and MFA programs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and is an Associate Prose Editor at Camera Obscura. His website is www.timhorvath.com.