Ostensibly a “how-to” guide, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is actually an amalgam of parody, rags-to-riches biography, and girl-next-door-romance, but Hamid doesn’t stop there. At the beginning of each chapter, he engages in a “dear reader” meta-analysis of the narrative constructs of all three genres.
The narrator grows up in severe poverty, with a his crass mother and devoted father who works hard to ensure he gets an education so he can move up in the world. He skims his raises off of the money he brings home to his parents and steals movies for his friend, “the pretty girl” who prostitutes herself to break into the fashion and film scene. Despite the differences in their approach, the narrator and the pretty girl become friends and the echo of their presence in each other’s lives becomes a touchstone for each of them in different ways.
The matter-of-fact tenor of the novel around poverty, bureaucracy, and violence mirrors the tenor of the developing world so precisely that it’s heartbreaking for a western reader. However, the same matter-of-fact approach to the narrator’s marriage renders it infinitely recognizable. His wife reaches across the emotional barriers between them tentatively, initiating lovemaking, asking questions, but the narrator does not respond. Whether this lack is because of his perceived roles as a man and husband and employer or simply because he is unable to see her reaching becomes irrelevant because either way, his “wife’s love slips from his grasp.” By the time he things to reach back, she has chosen a different path for her heart, one that makes her a woman of religious and cultural importance.
After their divorce, the narrator’s age and change of fortunes lead him back to the pretty girl, both of them in their eighties. Together, they pass their old age relying on a hired factotum for their day to day needs and visiting an internet café to Skype with the narrator’s grown son, a gay man who has taken asylum in the United States. The loneliness and love of these two people evokes the flip side of intimacy, one with nothing to prove or protect, open to laughter and mistakes and warmth the narrator has long denied himself. And it seems the narrator will die there: poor, divorced, cared for by a hired man.
Hamid has a final stroke up his sleeve though. While the closing chapter opens with a concession that the book “may not have been the very best of guides to getting filthy rich in rising Asia,” it also suggests that there is a different wealth. And while the narrator has accessed it only minimally, that small attempt is enough. This other wealth provides sustenance at the end, offers an “exit strategy” to anyone, “even those of modest means.” Hamid explains that the narrator is ready to “die well,” because “despite all else” he has “loved, has been beyond himself,” and becomes a part of the multitudes which we all contain and in which we are all contained.