In his 2007 novel, THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, Mohsin Hamid demonstrated that he wasn’t afraid to experiment with literary form. That novel consists of an extended monologue delivered by a young Pakistani named Changez, who has abandoned a successful business career in America to return to his native land after 9/11. In my review, I praised its “taut, intense prose” and described Hamid as “equal to the challenge of maintaining the momentum of Changez’s dramatic monologue for nearly 200 pages.” Hamid’s new novel, a Bildungsroman disguised as a frank, often bitingly funny self-help book, is no less structurally daring, producing a story that seduces us into identifying with a character whose roller coaster ride through life, for all its unconventionality, possesses undeniable appeal.
The book that provides the novel’s title is addressed to an unnamed protagonist identified only as “you,” who inhabits an unidentified Asian nation. From the moment he’s introduced as a “young jaundiced village boy,” he uses his wits and daring in a quest to propel himself toward prosperity and social status. After migrating to the city with his family to join his father who works as a cook, he quickly ascends the lower rungs of the economic ladder. From a home business selling barely potable bottled water (“You know quality matters, especially for fakes”), he eventually builds a thriving water distribution enterprise in a country where that resource is becoming increasingly scarce. To combat his ruthless competitors, he must bribe government officials, hire a private security force to ward off assassination attempts, and deal with the pain of a chilly arranged marriage to a much younger woman, all while suffering the losses of his parents and siblings as the years pass.
"In this energetic, thoroughly engaging novel, Mohsin Hamid has created a memorable portrait of life in the 'change-scented urban archipelago spanning not just rising Asia but the entire planet.' In that sense, the 'you' of the novel serves as an exemplar of the rewards and perils of upward mobility in every country and in every age."
The titles of the novel’s chapters, which trace a cynical sort of 12-step program, range from the practical (“Move to the City”) to the whimsical (“Dance with Debt”) to the ominous (“Be Prepared to Use Violence”). Its so-called advice is unfailingly candid, often spiked with lightning bolts of wry humor, as when, early in the book, the author contrasts his work with “a much-praised, breathtakingly boring foreign novel” that will find its readers “slogging through page after page of tar-slow prose and blush-inducing formal conceit.” Those shortcomings are absent from Hamid’s lively and confiding prose.
There’s a parallel story to the one that traces the protagonist’s path over seven decades from poverty to prosperity and its aftermath. In the slums of the city where he works delivering pirated DVDs, he meets an attractive young woman known only as the “pretty girl.” From his perspective, their relationship is summed up after their first sexual encounter: “You think the first woman you make love to should also be the last. Fortunately for you, for your financial prospects, she thinks of her second man as the one between her first and her third.” She embarks on a career as a model and actress, and the protagonist’s enduring passion for her provides a warmth to the story, an emotional anchor to the account of his striving, as their lives intersect at frequent intervals while never truly connecting.
Western readers will come away from this book with a sense of the energy of the region that will be the main source of our economic competition in coming decades. The fundamental reality of the Asia described in the novel is revealed early in the story: “It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.” Even as these countries undergo this radical transformation, the fact that the protagonist’s businesses are staffed with members of his “clan” reveals how the old ways die hard. And the novel exposes the failure of the modernization that’s proceeding at breakneck speed to penetrate more than superficially in most of these societies, birthing “a rising tide of frustration and anger and violence, born partly of the greater familiarity the poor have today with the rich, their faces pressed to that clear window on wealth afforded by ubiquitous television.”
In this energetic, thoroughly engaging novel, Mohsin Hamid has created a memorable portrait of life in the “change-scented urban archipelago spanning not just rising Asia but the entire planet.” In that sense, the “you” of the novel serves as an exemplar of the rewards and perils of upward mobility in every country and in every age.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 12, 2013
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