by K.M. Zahrt
Mohsin Hamid’s most recent book-length work of fiction, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), fits into what seems to be an emerging trend in fiction lately: complications caused by new-found wealth as experienced by individuals living in a “rising” economy, particularly in the East. I have a quote on my desk from Paul Auster taken from an interview with Jonathan Lethem in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers that reads: “It’s certain that the world is large enough and interesting enough to take a different approach each time you sit down to write about it” (p.25). This always serves to remind me that, even though a subject has been written about by countless authors before, it is still worthwhile to write about it because all perspectives are, in some way, unique. Likewise, even though Hamid’s subject seems to be trendy, he writes about it in an interesting way.
To begin, I want to address form before I get into content. I have two basic rules about book design when it comes to a work of fiction:
1. A work of fiction should never come in the ungodly size of 6 x 9. This is the size of the Clive Cussler or James Patterson books that greet you every time you walk into a Barnes & Noble. These massive hardcovers only serve to take up space on the bookshelf because publishers believe readers are too dumb to find a book if it isn’t huge. I find that offensive for one, and for two, it doesn’t serve the reader or the book in any way. A 6 x 9 text is clumsy to hold while you read and difficult to transport if you want to have the book handy for any given chance you might have 20 minutes to slip into it. I recognize that larger texts might be necessary for other genres, like the textbook, but it is not necessary for fiction. Therefore, a work of fiction should come in the other industry-standard sizes between 5 x 8 and 5.5 x 8.5. Hamid’s book is 5.5 x 8.5. Check.
2. A work of fiction should never come with real-life pictures on the cover, especially not pictures of humans. As a work of fiction, the magic happens when an author draws pictures of characters and objects and the reader imagines them. Putting real-life pictures on the cover of fiction immediately diminishes this experience. I believe this is one of the main reasons why people say, “I like the book better than the movie.” In the magic of fiction, the reader participates. Hamid’s cover appears to be a pool of water in which the title of the book is floating. It is clever and interesting, but it also delivers the necessary information simply and directly. Although there is a picture of a real-life goldfish (a sketched fish would have given the same affect and would’ve been better), it is minor enough not to detract from the magic of fiction described above. Check check.
I am to the point now where I am more likely to pick up a work of fiction if it adheres to these two simple rules. But on to content…
Like the cover design, Hamid’s text is also clever and interesting. It is written as a how-to manual. As such, it is written mostly from the second person perspective (you), which is common for how-to manuals but so uncommon in fiction that, if done poorly, it may seem gimmicky. To Hamid’s credit, he uses the unique perspective in a way that enhances the story without getting in the way.
In keeping with the how-to manual form, each chapter is titled with cliff-noted advice: “Get an Education,” “Don’t Fall in Love,” “Be Prepared to Use Violence,” etc. And the following narrative illustrates why as various dilemmas befall the narrator: you. Very clever.
The narrative sometimes falls into the trap in storytelling referred to as the “quick road home,” which happens when conflict seems to deflate too quickly. Hamid’s book depicts your life from beginning to end in less than 300 pages, so of course, some things won’t make the cut. However, in doing so, he upholds another basic rule I have for novels. Novels should be somewhere between 200-400 pages. Anything less is a novella, and anything more is too long. To paraphrase Auster’s quote above, the world is interesting enough to write about it over and over. A work of more than 400 pages is trying to tackle too much all at once. Save some for the next book. Perhaps that is what Hamid did. Check check check.
Ultimately, Hamid’s work of fiction is novel enough for you to take the time to sit down and read about it.