filthyrichBack in my MFA days at a midwestern university whose faculty came a bit late to the whole postmodernism thing, I took a contemporary fiction course with a professor who liked to make the claim, during nearly every class, that all works of art were in some way about the making of art. While this grand proclamation opened up all kinds of slippery slopes about the fungibility of texts — and thus crimes against literature such allowing a PhD student to turn in a review of a book of television criticism in lieu of a review of an actual book of contemporary fiction — his hobby-horse from that semester has since provided me with an occasionally useful tool for looking at some books. Near the end of  How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid’s anonymous narrator says, “Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go.” This particular grand proclamation comes in the introductory paragraphs of a chapter, an echo of similar passages in front of every chapter in the book that dissect and explicitly point out the purpose and mechanisms and methods of creation of the “self-help” books that the novel is purportedly based on. And so the professor’s old decree came to mind.

I say “purportedly” because I’ve never read any of these business-oriented self-help books that are apparently devoured by young Asian men. I have read my share American business books, invariably directed at ambitious management hopefuls and full of convoluted, strained metaphors between some scientific or philosophical stance and the primacy of shareholder value. And I’ve read more than enough self-help books for writers, in which one writer’s process is described in unhealthy detail and then twisted into generalities that all boil down to “put your ass in the chair and write.” If How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia had been written to parallel either of those genres, I could imagine how they’d be structured, though I might hope for a more invested, thorough pastiche than what Mr. Hamid appears to accomplish in his book. I have a hard time imagining that actual self-help books containing so much genre self-critique and so little actual advice would be of use to readers. Because of this, the central conceit of the novel — that it borrows its structure from these popular books — feels less like a deconstruction of the genre than just a clever framing device.

Perhaps it is a feature of the self-help genre that identifying particulars must be sanded smooth, made generic, so that the reader can project themselves as the advice-seeker, and that is why everything goes unnamed in “Filthy Rich.” Neither the protagonist nor any of his family or co-workers or bosses or enemies ever receives anything but a word describing their relationship to the second-person narrator’s “you.” The love interest is always described as the “pretty girl” even in her old age. The country they live in, the rural provinces and cities they move between, all go unnamed. Most of the events of the novel are told in summary. People and places and acts are described in detail, but always with the sense that they are each commoditized, just acting as placeholders for the particulars any advice-seeker might encounter.

That’s not to say that the novel is unformed. A lot happens; a whole lifetime happens, in fact. With its decades-long depiction of an unnamed “developing” country — likely, or at least analogous to, Pakistan — saturated with bribery and nepotism (or, seen another way, practicality and loyalty), violence and poverty, and the collisions of local values and global cultures, we are witness to the slow, sweeping changes in “rising Asia.” The language provides a bumpy ride throughout, rolling from hard-nosed authoritative insistence from the presumed author/narrator of the self-help book to gentle and dreamy depictions of family tenderness, frequently interspersed with funny, vulgar depictions of human vice and sexuality. The protagonist’s life moves forward relentlessly, almost too fast to really appreciate.

If the self-help book purports to tell anyone how to live and the novel describes one life in particular, then perhaps the novel based on self-help books means to illustrate one person’s success in following the precepts puts forth. In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the central precept is that success comes from being filthy rich, but the advice-seeker’s presumed definition of “rich” and the narrator’s definition of the word and even the antagonist’s definition are all different, and sometimes in conflict. While the writer has put forth his answer to the question of what to do with time passing, I’m not certain that he gives the reader enough advice to determine their own resolution to the problem.