Top positive review
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Inventive and Necessary
on 16 May 2013
I haven't read Pakistani author Hamid's first two novels (Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist), but after reading this, I'm very inclined to seek them out. Here, he makes three and a half interesting choices in the telling of a straightforward rags-to-riches story, all of which succeed in the service of the story he's telling about life in modern "Rising Asia."
The first and second choice are somewhat interrelated: the book is written in the framework of the self-help genre (which is a booming one in many parts of the world, not just the West), and as such, is written in the second person. The self-help framework lays out each chapter as a step up the ladder toward the penthouse of wealth, each accompanied by its own hardships, degradation, compromises, and deference/capitulation to the more powerful capitalists above one. When linked together, the chapter titles chart a twelve-step path to riches worthy of any self-help "system": Move to the City --> Get an Education --> Don't Fall in Love --> Avoid Idealists --> Learn From a Master --> Work For Yourself --> Be Prepared To Use Violence --> Befriend a Bureaucrat --> Patronize the Artists of War --> Dance With Debt --> Focus on the Fundamentals --> Have an Exit Strategy. Of course, despite the clear path -- not everything quite goes according to plan as messy things like feelings occasionally intrude.
The third choice is a much more daring one -- the story of the sixty-some years from rags to riches does not in any way correspond to linear time. For example, in the second and third chapters, the subject of the story is a teenager working for a DVD rental store. DVDs didn't appear until 1995, and almost certainly didn't achieve widespread use in Pakistan for at least five years, so if the subject's life story unfolded in conventional time, the final chapters would be taking place somewhere around 2050 or so. Instead, the book appears to hover in the same setting, somewhere between 2001 and 2011 or so even as the protagonist ages. The final half-choice is the book's brevity, clocking in at a generous 200 pages, even with ample line spacing. I say half-choice because who knows if the author set out with the intention of writing something short, but it's a breath of fresh air to me whenever I find a compelling story that clocks in at under 350 pages.
When I pick up a book with glowing blurbs on the cover from literary luminaries ranging from Philip Pullman to Dave Eggers, I am instantly put on a alert and don my skeptic goggles. However, this is a book that fully deserves the praise. It's not a book that's going to open your eyes if you're someone who is paying attention to the lives of people in the wider world, but its depiction of what success looks like and takes in "rising Asia" is inventively crafted and best of all, a fun and quick read.