Sunday, March 24, 2013

Novels of Asia Redux

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Non-fiction shelves are filled with the work of those who try and interpret the rise of Asia. Now, it’s time for novelists to step in. Unusually, two recent books by writers from this part of the world both take their cues from self-help books.

The first, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, announces its structure in the title itself, and with chapter headings such as ‘Learn from a Master’ and ‘Work for Yourself’. It’s written in the second person, and the combination of these elements puts one in mind of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self Help, especially ’How to Become a Writer’.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the life story of an individual born to an impoverished family, a “young jaundiced village boy”. However: “Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia. And you have now taken it.” Hamid charts his protagonist’s progress over the decades, from DVD delivery boy to “non-expired-labeled expired-goods salesman” to bottled-water baron. (He starts out in this last endeavor by simply filling old plastic bottles with boiled tap water.) Bribes, bureaucracy and betrayals are, of course, part of this process, played out against the backdrop of urban decay.

It’s also a love story, and Hamid has said in a recent interview that he modeled the book on Sufi poetry: “Islamic mysticism where love is used as the prism for relating to the universe…in the form of love poems, which are second-person addresses”. Thus, the book also follows the fortunes of another individual referred to as “the pretty girl”, who makes her way from small-time model to television chef to upmarket furniture and bric-a-brac retailer. In a series of deft segues, we learn of the couple’s interactions and ultimate fates.

In contrast to Hamid’s coolly ironic tone, Tash Aw’s work is – on the surface, at least – more formally realist. His Five Star Billionaire, at nearly double the number of pages, shares similar themes, yet is a very different kind of work. If you look at the chapter headings alone, you’ll find them almost interchangeable with Hamid’s: ‘Choose the Right Moment to Launch Yourself’ and ‘Anticipate Danger in Times of Peace’, for example. In addition, one of the characters is addicted to self-help books while another claims to have written many of them.

The setting is a brash, modernising Shanghai, a magnet that Aw’s characters are drawn to from the Malaysian countryside. Many of the characters in Yiyun Li’s short stories are bewildered and left behind by the new China; here, we see the other side of the coin.

The five stars of Five Star Billionaire are the winner of a reality music show, an idealistic coffee-shop owner turned businesswoman, the scion of a wealthy family looking to expand its interests, a young woman who works in a spa and a mysterious tycoon seeking a legacy. Having thrown these balls up in the air, Aw makes them cross in their upward and downward trajectories, most of the time with a degree of skill. Beneath this is a subterranean plot to do with the catching up of a retributive past.

The fast-changing, polluted city with enclaves of affluence is a tangible presence in both books; in addition, fakes feature in both, as local rip-offs as well as the authenticity – or lack thereof -- of the characters. In his trademark tone, Hamid writes: “You know quality matters, especially for fakes”, and Aw observes of a counterfeit brand: “Like everything in life these days, I suppose you could say it’s a copycat – a fake”.

One of the chapters in Hamid’s novel starts with an exhortation to focus on the fundamentals. As novelists, both he and Aw do this by focusing on character and plot and creating alternative, competing visions of Asian rise and fall. Business headlines may trumpet a nation’s success story, but it takes a novel to unmask the darker, intimate stories behind it.

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