The second-person voice, that rarest of literary modes, can be used to create a false intimacy. On the surface, the reader appears to be implicated in the story; in reality, we are stuck outside, eavesdropping on the author as he hectors his creations with the accusatory pronoun ‘you’.
Jay McInerney employed this technique in Bright Lights, Big City (1984) to tell the story of an unpleasant, unnamed city boy sucked into the maelstrom of New York yuppiedom. Mohsin Hamid uses it for similar reasons in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a contemporary parable about poverty, capitalism and happiness. Hamid’s unnamed ‘you’ is an archetype who is born in a village somewhere in the subcontinent and goes on to make a fortune. Along the way, he is mocked by the author for his gaucheness, then his wiliness and misplaced priorities. But he is also treated with a measure of empathy and, finally, redemption.
Like Lorrie Moore’s collection Self-Help (1985), which also used the second person, Hamid’s novel is written in the form of a self-help manual. The instructions are laid out chronologically – ‘Move to the City’, ‘Get an Education’, and so on – and our protagonist dutifully follows the prescribed path to filthy riches. He studies hard, saves for university, briefly flirts with fundamentalism, sells bootleg bottled water, dresses showily (‘thinking your garb connotes wealth and class’), goes legit, starts a thriving business, moves into utilities, loses his parents, gets married, has a son, gets divorced, gets betrayed. Living a parallel life is a ‘pretty girl’ he once slept with, and their tracks finally reconverge in later life. ‘Despite all else you have loved,’ he is told at the end.
The speed with which we race through this arc is both an asset and a failing. This is a slight book, in terms of heft and resonance, but it is oddly compulsive. Characters fall ill and die within a few sentences, dreams are expunged with a dismissive stroke of the pen. Time passes in devastating measures: ‘It has been five years, the age of your son, since you last entered your wife’s body.’
Hamid’s economy of cruelty can be impressive. Here he is on the relationship between a mother and daughter: ‘The older woman waits for the younger woman to age, the younger woman waits for the older woman to die. It is a game both will inevitably win.’ And on the protagonist’s relationship with his son: ‘you have allowed yourself to become fond of him not for the content of his character but for the fidelity of his echo.’ Parenthood, in Hamid’s world, is bound up with mortality: family love ‘flows one way, down the generations, not in reverse’.
The tone is often arch (‘Avoid idealists’; ‘Don’t Fall in Love’), though there is room for quiet poetry: a lit cigarette emits ‘the burrowing termite crackle of paper and tobacco’. Hamid’s eye for detail is also impressive: there is the schoolmaster who keeps sand in his pocket to provide frictive grip for pupil ear-grabbing; he describes the ‘electrical wires dark against the glow of the night sky’ as a couple make love on a roof.
There can be a clumsiness, however, to the self-help formality of the prose, and Hamid is so keen to render the stench of the city, in both its poverty and its wealth, that his similes can sink into scatology. Sometimes they are puerile: ‘she will be more than surprised at the name he is about to let slip, as by a gurgling fart during a passionate embrace.’ Sometimes they are forced. A strutting woman in a slum sticks out ‘like a bikini in a seminary’.
And then there is the voice. Hamid has said that what he likes about the second person is that ‘it can be either very close and very near, or you can zoom back to a cosmic, almost religious text’. But his lens loses focus in the zooming. He can’t seem to make up his mind about when to keep his protagonist at arm’s length and when to make us empathise; or whether he even likes his ‘you’. One minute, the character is engaging in a genuinely moving scene of reconciliation with a lover; the next, his sister is dead and we have no idea how he feels. While there is an authenticity to this – other people will always remain unfathomable; people can be both likeable and unpleasant – it also leaves the reader feeling stranded. It hinders us, eventually, from rooting for the character, or rooting for his demise.
There is another, unrelated problem. The boy appears to have been born in the 1980s (he has a mobile phone as a youth) and lives well into old age. And yet this novel’s future seems remarkably similar to the present. Will there even be internet cafes in 2050? Either way, Mohsin Hamid doesn’t seem to care. While this adds to the novel’s fabular quality, it also feels like an oversight – another barrier between our compassion and suspension of disbelief.