If you want to read good literature in English nowadays, go to those of the former British colonies that won their freedom in the twentieth century. Nobody else is writing anything of interest in English these days. (Except Zadie Smith who is a rare and strange exception.)
The worst course I ever took on contemporary literature in English was the one on American post-modernism. Cormack McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, John Barth – I thought I would die of boredom, together with 11 supremely bored classmates and a constantly yawning professor. British and American writers should not venture into the post-modern because it is not their thing. (Except Zadie Smith who is a rare and strange exception.)
The best course I ever took on contemporary literature in English was called “Empire Writes Back.” It featured really amazing writers from all of the former colonies, and especially from the Subcontinent. India and Pakistan rule English literature today, which -aside from Zadie Smith – is the only thing that keeps English literature alive.
One of the most interesting writers who publish fiction in English today is Mohsin Hamid. I discovered him through his wonderful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (see my reviews here and here) Now he has published another great book titled How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Hamid has an amazing talent for constructing a narrative. When his novel was first delivered to me, I decided to leave it aside for when the semester ends and I am less busy. So I was only going to take a glance on the first paragraph to see what the book was like. That was my downfall because one cannot possibly put the book aside after reading the following:
Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on.
How was I supposed to stop reading after this? Of course, I forgot about my grading and the syllabus for next semester and lost myself in the book.
Unlike British and American post-modernists whose constipated attempts at formal experimentation always make their novels clunky and indigestible, Mohsin Hamid’s writing style is elegant and beautiful. You can feel that it comes naturally to him, unlike to the British and American post-modernists whose writing is so tortured and forced as to cause me to feel vicarious shame for people who try so desperately to massage themselves into the kind of writing that does not suit them. (Except Zadie Smith who is a rare and strange exception.)
If you want to acquaint yourself with a beautiful, enjoyable and profound post-modern novel, I recommend Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It is not one of those meaningless post-modern pieces of writing. To the contrary, Hamid’s novel offers one valuable insight after another:
In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. 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.
I am experiencing exactly what the author is describing, and he is so right that it scares me. Just this single little quote could give us material for a fascinating debate on the transformation of extended patriarchal clans into nuclear families.
One question that I kept asking myself as I was reading Hamid’s novel was how come a male author from Lahore, Pakistan can write a novel without a trace of sexism when no Latin American writer I have ever encountered, whether male or female, has yet managed anything of the kind. (If you have encountered one, please let me know in the comments.) The love story Hamid offers in his novel is so free of any taint of sexism that, for the first time in a long while, I enjoyed a fictional love story without once wincing in disgust. By the end of the novel, I was so touched that I was crying, and my tears were forming a little pool on the table. This is doubly surprising, given that I’m pregnant and, as a result, my emotional range is depleted.
In short, read Mohsin Hamid, people. He is definitely one of the best contemporary writers in the world. I have no doubt that this novel will be turned into a movie, but please don’t watch it. The best part of Hamid’s work is his beautiful writing. Without it, this will be nothing of interest.
19 thoughts on “Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Review”
Quite agree about Pynchon. I started reading the Rainbow one and nearly died of boredom by the end of page 3 (if it was that far), so gave up. I don’t often give up on books, they have to be REALLY bad/boring for me to lose faith.
On the other hand, I’ve just finished reading Life of Pi (okay, I know I must be the last person on the planet) and loved it. I haven’t seen the film, but my mother tells me it’s wonderful too.
Mohsin Hamid sounds just up my street too.
” I started reading the Rainbow one and nearly died of boredom by the end of page 3 (if it was that far), so gave up. I don’t often give up on books, they have to be REALLY bad/boring for me to lose faith.”
– Same experience. I usually can finish pretty much anything. But this was just too bad.
“On the other hand, I’ve just finished reading Life of Pi (okay, I know I must be the last person on the planet) and loved it. I haven’t seen the film, but my mother tells me it’s wonderful too.”
– I never read Life of Pi because all of those plagiarism scandals surrounding the book put me off. But I watched the movie on an airplane and even on their crappy TV sets it looked beautiful.
I must have been on the moon when the scandals were raging. Oh well. 🙂
I love Zadie Smith!
I’ll try and keep Mohsin Hamid in mind, too, though — you are giving me such a long list of authors to check out.
“I love Zadie Smith!”
– Glad to hear that! I don’t get people who don’t appreciate Zadie Smith
I dunno I’ve never been able to get past a few pages of South Indian novels written in English – it’s all entirely too precious with ornate adjectives that serve no purpose in moving anything forward and lots of self-conscious exoticism.
On the other hand, some years ago I had the chance to read half a dozen or so novels originally written in (mostly southern) Indian languages and translated into English and they were far more interesting and would gladly read more but apparently most Indian authors are wearing out their thesauruses in hopes of becoming the next big thing in anglophone white guilt chic.
” it’s all entirely too precious with ornate adjectives that serve no purpose in moving anything forward and lots of self-conscious exoticism.”
– You are describing US post-modernism. 🙂
” in hopes of becoming the next big thing in anglophone white guilt chic”
– This sounds like you are suggesting I suffer from anglophone guilt. This would be hard since I’m not anglophone. Writers in India and Pakistan write better in English than anybody from the UK or the US today. Except Zadie Smith. For me, this is an incontrovertible fact. The reason for this is that US and UK writers are trying to force themselves into a literary movement that is simply not their thing. They are collectively horrible at post-modernism. Only the Russians are worse at it. If they went to what they do well and what their readers really want – realism – they would do a lot better.
“you are suggesting I suffer from anglophone guilt”
Not at all. For one thing that’s not you (give me credit for figuring that much out) and besides, you’re not the target audience at all, just collateral readership.
In your case, I suspect that your russophone roots and adopted hispanicism and particular personality quirks means you dig ornate elaborate language for its own sake. Nothing wrong with that (no arguing taste) my tastes just run in a very different direction toward the more…. visceral and stories told in actions rather than reflection.
And my taste is generally dreadful I far prefer reading mid-list genre fiction* to serious literature (and think the genre writers often have more interesting things to say about human nature).
*though I have an enduring respect and affection for the even lower rungs (like this (which I’ve read and enjoyed):
“In your case, I suspect that your russophone roots and adopted hispanicism and particular personality quirks means you dig ornate elaborate language for its own sake. ”
– No, I hate it. This is one of the reasons why I detest Latin American literature. In all of the writers from the Subcontinent that I admire, I cannot think of a single one whose prose is ornate or elaborate. Look at the quotes from Mohsin Hamid I have provided. If that’s ornate and elaborate, we must have very different definitions of these words.
‘Nothing wrong with that (no arguing taste) my tastes just run in a very different direction toward the more…. visceral and stories told in actions rather than reflection.”
– I have a feeling we are talking about different writers, that’s all.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that it’s very difficult for Anglos to grasp postmodernism. Like everything in life, this comes as a surprise to me. I think the greatest difficulty they have with it is the irony. I recently listened to a short snip of a presentation, in video format, where Richard Dawkins makes a fool of himself quoting Luce Irigaray without any context. I mean quite literally, he had not bothered to look up a single sentence, even in a Wikipedia article, about why she wrote in that way. He reads from a book condemning postmodernism as unscientific and silly, followed by a text that isn’t trying to be scientific, but is an ironic critique of Lacan’s mystical and mystifying patriarchal pretensions and pseudo-science. His Hitler Youth audience then cheer him on as a great exposer of “feminism”, as if the text he read had actually been some silly drivel from some sophomore’s lips — that is, something actually and legitimately without context.
If the poor thing (Dawkins) had read anything about Irigaray, not just an isolated segment of one of her texts, he would have found that she is self-consciously Nietzschean, which means she desires to kill the old spirit of patriarchy by evoking laughter — although not the uncomprehending idiotic laughter that comes from Dawkins and his disciples:
[the old gods] did not “begloom” themselves to death–that do people fabricate! On the contrary, they–LAUGHED themselves to death once on a time!
With the old Deities hath it long since come to an end:–and verily, a good joyful Deity-end had they!
That took place when the unGodliest utterance came from a God himself–the utterance: “There is but one God! Thou shalt have no other Gods before me!”–
–An old grim-beard of a God, a jealous one, forgot himself in such wise:–
And all the Gods then laughed, and shook upon their thrones, and exclaimed: “Is it not just divinity that there are Gods, but no God?”
He that hath an ear let him hear.–
” Look at the quotes from Mohsin Hamid I have provided. If that’s ornate and elaborate, we must have very different definitions of these words.”
“the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way”
Three adjectives in a row is pretty racy where I come from. And while I understand and agree with the point he’s making*, it’s way too much telling and not enough showing for me.
*I always think it’s hilarious when people try to ‘defend traditional family values’ by using the nuclear family as a model – the nuclear family does not represent traditional family values it represents the breakdown of traditional family values (which are based on various versions of extended families). Nuclear families are unnatural (in that they represent a departure from typical human social structures) and it takes a lot of econcomic and legal infrastructure to keep them from breaking apart entirely.
If you want really ornate, I suggest you check out Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (his only good novel). The last sentence is 70 pages long. 🙂 🙂 Three adjectives is nothing to Garcia Marquez. 🙂
“Nuclear families are unnatural (in that they represent a departure from typical human social structures) and it takes a lot of econcomic and legal infrastructure to keep them from breaking apart entirely.”
– Any alternative to the horrible “typical social structures” is good. In patriarchal clans, there is no space for human individuality.
Nnedi Okorafor. She is not the only one, but at the moment she is the best by far, I think. Who Fears Death is her best so far, although I am betting that her forthcoming Lagoon will be even better.
Another very good one is Nalo Hopkinson. Midnight Robber is one of the two or three best books I have ever read.
f you want to read good literature in English nowadays, go to those of the former British colonies that won their freedom in the twentieth century. Nobody else is writing anything of interest in English these days. (Except Zadie Smith who is a rare and strange exception.)
I’m curious as to why you feel this is (why you feel former colonialists do it well whereas Western nationals don’t.) I don’t read much fiction these days, but I do note that former British colonies or people with ancestry from former British colonies dominate book awards.
Many works of fiction just feel supremely self indulgent, drowning in a kind of insipid paper-thin subjectivity. You read them through or you stop and you don’t remember them. Or if they try to be literary it feels very affected.
An author that does second-person view well is rare and memorable. I read “That Thing Around Your Neck” and I still remember it even though I haven’t read anything else by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
I shall certainly ask for How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia since I could barely put it down in the bookstore.
I have this theory that Anglo writers have convinced themselves that the post-modern is the only respectable kind of writing at this moment. So they try to pursue it with obsessive devotion. But it’s really not their thing, so they keep failing. What they can do better than anybody in the world, however, is realism. Good, old-fashioned realism. Yes, nobody else in the world does it but this didn’t prevent Dreiser, Steinbeck, Lewis, etc. from creating beautiful realist / naturalist fiction when nobody else in the world was doing it.
Anglos! Leave post-modernism for those who like it and whom it likes back. Go back to doing what you know how to do!
This is a bit off the subject but what do you think of the work of Angela Carter? She passed away about 20 years ago so she isn’t still writing of course but I always think of her work as a good example of British postmodernism. She doesn’t grab me emotionally but I think she is (or was) talented. What do you think?
I know I must have read something by Angela Carter but I can’t remember what right now. My mind is a blank and will remain so until the end of the semester. 🙂
She wrote quite a bit. But her most famous works are _Nights at the Circus_ and _The Bloody Chamber._ LIke I said, she’s not exactly my cup of tea but she writes really beautifully and sensually. And her work is almost “textbook postmodern.” 🙂