How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

Why not a novel written as a self-help book? In Hamid’s novel, the unnamed protagonist is presented as the prototype for achieving the title’s goal, suggesting that if the reader follows the same path, he too will achieve it. The Asian country where he lives is also unidentified.

The book is entirely in the second person (you), conflating you the reader with you the protagonist. It’s an interesting experiment. In some ways, this device works quite well. It reminds us that this in fact is exactly what good fiction does: it makes us feel as though we actually are the protagonist. Hamid does this with a nudge in the ribs, inviting us to laugh along. Also, we are intrigued by the tension of being both reader and protagonist, as well as the interplay of self-help language and the reality of the protagonist’s struggle. And tension is what keeps us reading, as we are reminded by Donald Maass, literary critic, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire.

In other ways, the device detracts from the story. One member of my book club, driven mad by what one reviewer calls the “extravagant use of the second person”, was unable to finish the book. For me, it had the effect of keeping me at a distance. I don’t know if it was the second person point of view (all those yous!), the lack of a name for the protagonist, the absence of much sense of the characters’ feelings, or my own analytical curiosity as to how this experiment would work, but I felt as though I were viewing the events of the novel from 20,000 feet. I could summon no emotion for any of the characters.

And because of that, I was bored. There seemed to be an empty space at the center of the novel, as another person in my book club said. An interesting experiment, often quite funny, but I didn’t find it compelling.

However, in yet another testament to the variety of tastes and reader experiences, many in my book club loved the book. They disagreed with me about the emotion, claiming to have felt the protagonist’s ambition, moral quandaries and griefs. One person was completely charmed by the protagonist’s romance with someone called only “the pretty girl”. Many found themselves laughing frequently, enjoying the little jokes, such as the chapter titles.

Other factors that kept me at a distance was the speed at which we zipped through the protagonist’s life and the banality of that life. To encompass a lifetime in a very small book means moving quickly, dipping in here and there to provide scenes and then pulling away again. And the arc of the protagonist’s life is mostly the boiled down stereotype of everyman in our capitalist world; it’s a story that’s been told a million times, with little to set it apart or make it new.

It’s as though Hamid is trying to see how far he can stretch the illusion of fiction, how much he can reveal its essential phoniness, without losing the reader. If he lost me and a couple of others, he certainly didn’t lose the majority of readers in my book club.

What book have you and your friends disagreed about?

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