With a wink to Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey, Hamid’s chapter titles lead us inexorably toward success: “Move to the City,” “Get an Education,” “Learn from a Master.” And he often strikes a perfect imitation of that overconfident, just-between-us tone that has appealed to the desperate for generations: “To be effective, a self-help book requires two things. First, the help it suggests should be helpful. Obviously. And second, without which the first is impossible, the self it’s trying to help should have some idea of what help is needed.”
So true, so true. I can picture my lonely teenage self jotting that tautological wisdom down in my secret journal.
Working within the frame of a self-help book would seem constricting at best, annoying at worst, but Hamid tells a surprisingly moving story and — crucially — a short one. His protagonist is never named, indeed, there aren’t any named people or places in this novel, although Hamid has spoken in interviews of the setting as Pakistan. But the story manages to be both particular and broad at the same time.
The hero — “You” — is a sickly boy who might have been snuffed out, as so many others in his village are, by fever or hepatitis. He and his family live in a single room, cook over a fire and drink from an open sewer. Only by chance is he not “a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.” One in a thousand, he escapes the deadliest risks of extreme poverty when his family crosses over “the yawning gap that exists between countryside and city.” Suddenly, they’re living in a metropolitan area filled with the wonders of electricity and gas-powered cars. Forget New York: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
But this is no granular report on what lies behind the beautiful forevers. Hamid’s method is glancing, often ironical. He sketches a “most unequal city” where rich and poor are swept together in “a rising tide of frustration and anger and violence.” Smart and savage when he has to be, the boy thrives in school, starts delivering counterfeit DVDs, then “non-expired-labeled expired-goods” and, finally, bottled (and sometimes filtered) water. “You know quality matters,” the narrator notes, “especially for fakes.”
Nothing we take for granted is in place here to encourage commerce or development. “Rampant nepotism,” bribes and corruption are the rule. Political parties are just rival gangs, assassins ride motorcycles down the crowded streets and terrorists’ bombs randomly rip apart lives and homes without any particular reason.