The Lure of Filthy Lucre

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Hamid is a glittering example of the global interpreter class, ideally placed to flit between the interstices of a world at once joined together and cracking apart. He studied at both Princeton and Harvard and worked for the management consultants McKinsey & Company before moving to London, where he wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist, had his daughter and became a naturalised Briton. He has since moved back to Lahore, a city he continued to return to for months at a time even while studying and working abroad. According to his Wikipedia entry, he divides his time “between Lahore, New York, London and Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece”. Nice life if you can get it (though you’re unlikely to get it, even if you try).

Water wars Hamid’s protagonist in Filthy Rich runs a bottled water scam
Water wars Hamid’s protagonist in Filthy Rich runs a bottled water scam Photo: AFP

It’s that perspective which makes his novels so of the moment, so zeitgeisty. Mira Nair has said that she had to bring Hamid on board to help with the screenplay for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, despite his reluctance, because while she could find someone to get the Pakistan bits right and someone to get the New York bits right, no one could effectively get both right. Moth Smoke, published in 2000, was set in a nuclearised, corrupt, crazy Pakistan, but its problems seem tame, quaint even, compared to the decade to follow. Hamid’s voice — sardonic, smart, a Pakistani Brett Easton Ellis — was a hip antidote to flaccid, ever tamer Indian fiction in English. As Anita Desai wrote: “One could not really continue to write, or read about, the slow seasonal changes, the rural backwaters, gossipy courtyards, and traditional families in a world taken over by gun-running, drug-trafficking, largescale industrialism, commercial entrepreneurship, tourism, new money, nightclubs, boutiques.”

Easton Ellis and his contemporary and friend Jay McInerney are writers to whom Hamid is often compared, their novels characterised by the urban sheen of rain-slicked tarmac. By 2007, though, and the publication of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, that world Desai alluded to in her review of Moth Smoke had already been replaced by one in which even a global, ‘westernised’ Pakistani like Hamid was treated like the enemy, the citizen of a pariah State caught between the seething fury of a superpower with a bloodied nose and the seething fury of those radicalised and armed within its own borders, a Frankenstein’s monster created, at least in part, by the State itself. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is similarly au courant, examining, with the raised eyebrow that is Hamid’s stock in trade, life in the megapolis, a nameless city that could as easily be Lagos, Mexico City or Rio as it could Lahore, Karachi or Mumbai.

‘You’, to borrow from Kakutani, is an archetype, as is the city in which he rises, meteorically, and then falls. American reviews have been uniformly glowing and it’s easy to see why, it is a story close to American hearts, that of the individual rising above his circumstances to achieve astonishing material success. Horatio Alger has been mentioned more than once, the popular 19th-century writer of poor boys done good; so too has Fitzgerald, and Gatsby, that bootlegging Jazz Age romantic. Neither comparison is accurate. Hamid is too savvy to be compared to Alger, his novel too clever. Fitzgerald was a more acute social critic and Gatsby a tragic figure, his American dream, whether Daisy or the mansion where he held those fabulous parties, more tarnished and taw – dry than he could bring himself to admit. Hamid’s character finds a measure of solace, a last half-decade of happiness.

But there is plenty to talk about before those last, gilded days, the unexpected Indian summer in an already too-packed life. We are whisked through 70 years during which ‘you’ (we?) migrates to the city with his family; is fortunate enough to have some schooling; takes a job delivering videos; goes to college; joins a group of radicals; drops out; sells already expired goods with a fresh new label; goes into business for himself; running a bottled water scam in which he passes off water boiled “for five minutes as a general rule” as mineral water; becomes a significant player in the water market, winning an army contract to provide piped water for an exclusive housing estate, “[d]rinkable water… Like you’ve gone to Europe. Or North America”; loses his fortune and ends up almost destitute again.

He also marries late, has a son, both of whom leave. The one constant, like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, is his attachment to ‘the pretty girl’. They meet in their urban slum, she like him ambitious for the future. She embarks on a parallel path of modelling, TV stardom and highend interior design. They meet infrequently but each for the other represents a more enduring value than that of material success, a link to and reminder of the possibility of another life. Hamid is a writer devoted to lean, spare, structured novels. He covers a lot in 12 economically constructed chapters, including the protagonist’s mother’s death from cancer, his father’s broken heart, his initially loveless marriage and relationship with his son, his siblings, his workers, his mentors. There is violence too, and the inner workings of an economically febrile, if corrupt, city.

There is also a particularly fine passage in which the city is seen through the surveillance equipment that monitors its goings on; it is the one moment we see the character ‘you’, from the outside, from above, like a writer or a drone. The similarity between what the drone does and what Hamid is doing is apparent, particularly as it “circles a few times, its high-powered eye unblinking, and flies observantly on”. It is the sort of irony Hamid enjoys. The fundamentals in The Reluctant Fundamentalist turned out to be a reference to Underwood Samson (note the initials), the valuation firm for which the monologist Changez worked. In his new novel, Hamid reprises the Underwood Samson catchphrase, titling a chapter ‘Focus on the Fundamentals’. The fundamentals, though, in Filthy Rich, a book ostensibly a guide to getting rich, turn out to be quite different, turn out to involve sloughing off excess and making room for love.

What we rely on in a dangerous, frequently bewildering world, Hamid tells us, is storytelling. “And how strange that when I imagine,” he writes, “I feel. The capacity for empathy is a funny thing.” It is Hamid’s triumph that he manages to create empathy for a character with no name and who lives in a city with no name, who loves a woman with no name. For all that I admire Hamid’s gifts, find him, unquestionably, an exciting writer, and for all that I enjoyed Filthy Rich (a book I read over the course of a single day), doubts remain. Hamid’s brevity, his concision comes at the cost of depth. I relish Hamid while I’m reading him but feel oddly empty, unfulfilled when I finish. Reading him can feel like sitting on a bus with an impatient tour guide — you are always being hurried along when you feel inclined to linger. There is a manipulative, affectless tone to the prose, a product of his otherwise effective use of the second person. His characters seem to be put into situations, like you might put a chess piece on a certain square. Hamid’s concern with his novels’ architecture can also make him seem pat, too neat. I sometimes wish he would relax into his novels, would, to borrow from Filthy Rich in another context, loosen his belt and, sighingly, expand.

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