When I was in college, an older friend who frequented the café where I worked recommended I read a certain classic self-help book. Now, I went to college to read books - in a tiny bayside town in the Eastern United States, where classics were read instead of textbooks, and conversation was had around a large wooden table instead of listening to a lecture. It was the "midwifery" approach to education – like Socrates, the teachers helped students self-realize, rather than give them masticulated realizations. But the midwife, not skilled in the practical, could not guide a young adult on what she might do with the 60 years or so of life that likely lay ahead. Thus, I randomly and somewhat fruitlessly asked people what I should do with my life (like one might expect, the answers were both vague and varied – a novelist, a Tibetan scholar told me; a wife, a French ex-pat suggested). Though not one person recommended it, I became a lawyer, and not having a great calling like Mohsin Hamid, I am still practicing law today.
I quickly learned that the recommended self-help book – Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, published in 1937 – would be of no use to me, a lesson repeated in future attempts to benefit from the genre. It was too practical and contained too many exclamation points, I explained to the confused older friend. What I didn't say was that I, an academic's daughter with romantic notions about life, lacked the raw hunger and desire necessary for a book like that to succeed. I hadn't the first "principle" in Hill's book: desire.
This principle is why Hamid's novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, disguised as a self-help book, fails, by design, in the self-help genre, while succeeding as a beautiful novel. This is not to say that I think anyone would actually read Hamid's book to get rich. Any such goal is quickly abandoned once the reader begins the book, which, after an initiation into the self-help format, leads to his own birth as the protagonist, a nameless, crying, "you," born under auspicious circumstances in a nameless village in a nameless country in Asia. The reader quickly realizes that the book's aim is not to help you, the protagonist, become filthy rich. He, born into a poor, illiterate family where chances of surviving to adulthood are low even today, would be unlikely to waste his time on novels (this is confirmed by the fact that the protagonist, when he delivers films on his bike for a living, hardly takes the time to escape into them, only doing so when it brings him closer to his object of desire – a pretty girl).
You soon realize that the protagonist, to his credit, is simply too likeable to have the desire for power and wealth necessary to succeed in the world Hamid has put him. Even though he repeats that yours and his desire is "getting filthy rich - your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon." Rather, the protagonist seems to become filthy rich in the course of impressing a pretty girl, searching for a palatable identity, surviving in a world where many don't.
He seems the type to reject Napoleon Hill's classic self-help book. After all, he is incapable of engaging in the violence and utter cruelty likely necessary to become filthy rich in a stratified society. The "topic of violence" – in that "[b]ecoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness" - comes late in the book, and while the protagonist is both the primogenitor of the violence and the recipient, he is not the doer. His hands remain clean and his conscience is too involved.
This sympathy for the protagonist is no accident, but is the result of Hamid's clever manufacture. By placing the reader in the shoes of the protagonist, the reader feels sympathy for him. One can't hate oneself while reading a book intended to help oneself. This sympathy is also a direct result of the universality of Hamid's novel, stripped of references that might alienate readers, perhaps to help the reader immerse himself as the protagonist. As a result, Hamid's book is almost completely lacking in texture: no characters have names, but are rather archetypes – there is you, your father, your mother, your siblings, the pretty girl, and so forth. No particular food is named; no color; no plants; no religion. No description of a particular landscape that might focus ones eye to somewhere in Asia. At first, I found this jarring. Since the story was set in Asia, as vague as that is, it is a place strongly drawn and content-filled, and I expected the novel to be same. I doubted it could be an Asian story without the blinding of raw colors worn by Faisalabadi women in the city where my grandfather was a textiles producer, or the satisfying smell of egg and scallion crepes bought from a Shanghaiese bicycle peddler.
(I do not mean to say that the lack of texture makes this book less true. Rather, some descriptions are so true, they feel raw. I'll share one with you – that of standing at a construction site and "catch[ing] a whiff of something quite inexplicable, or at least you think you do, a scalding breeze carrying to your nose the blood like aroma of rust.")
Soon, I found myself easily filling in the blanks – the landscape, the clothing, the meals, the outline of the homes, the form of prayer. The rooftop on which the pretty girl sits. Hamid explains the lack of texture in the middle of the book: "like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project," he states, because it requires the reader to imagine, unlike a TV show or a movie, where what you see is presented to you.
"Readers don't work for writers," Hamid explains. "They work for themselves. Therein, if you'll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of reading. And therein, as well, lies a pointer to richness elsewhere. Because if you truly want to become filthy rich in rising Asia, as we appear to have established that you do, then sooner or later you must work for yourself. The fruits of labor are delicious, but individually they're not particularly fattening. "
But by making his book void of texture, Hamid has made the reader work for the writer. I'm not complaining; the fruits of the labor he commands are worth the toil. It is only after the eye is retrained and refocused away from painted ceramics that it can appreciate the form of clear hand-blown glass. It is so with Hamid's novel, and as such, it brings the reader closer to the protagonist because by filling in his own content to the protagonist's storyline, he can see himself as that unnamed crying baby in the unnamed village.
In the end, if Hamid's book is to be seen as a self-help book at all, its aim appears to be to help the English-speaking reader, whether he be Western or Asian, relate to those Asian self-made tycoons - those that support the Cartier stores in even small industrial cities; who occupy the backseats of chauffeured Bentleys; who give rise to impossibly countless women carrying $10,000 handbags. By uniting his protagonist and the reader, he teaches the reader that the Asian tycoon isn't a ruthless villain, but he could be you under the same circumstances - if you had a desire to impress a pretty girl and to live.
What matters most is that Hamid's book succeeds as a beautiful novel and love story, with the parallel rise of the protagonist and the pretty girl crossing paths like the two strands of a double helix. One of the most rewarding aspects of Hamid's novel is his drawing of female characters. Even the pretty girl, though named as an object, is so much more - a complex and real picture of a woman who defies the social norms of her society (which, for me and my context, are the norms of a Muslim society in Pakistan). Indeed, even a minor woman character in Hamid's book is more satisfying than most female protaganists in literature. I feel self-conscious that, by saying that I loved Hamid's novel for the love story and the women, I may have revealed more about myself than about his book. Perhaps coming to this realization and admitting it, I have learned that I can benefit from the self-help genre after all.