All of this is spelled out with matter-of-fact assurance in the form of a pseudo-self-help book. You want to get rich in rising Asia? This is what it takes. The first person "writer" of this purported manual addresses one of his readers – the unnamed water executive – in the tricky second person, "you," following him over a span of seven decades. He first zeroes in on him as a boy in his dirt-poor village, "huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother's cot" suffering from hepatitis E, whose "typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum."
Over the course of twelve chapters – wryly echoing twelve-step programs – the book spells out what "you" must do to advance: Move to the City; Get an Education (however inadequate); Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Dance with Debt; Have an Exit Plan. Despite the injunction not to get entangled in love, the protagonist falls as a teen into a lifelong obsession with an elusive "pretty girl" from his neighborhood, a young woman as determined to move up in the world as he is. His infatuation, alas, is unrelieved by his arranged marriage to a lovely, much younger woman, who after completing her law degree, gives him a much-loved son but lives an increasingly separate life.
The narrator's ironically instructive, deadpan voice calls to mind Daniel Orozco's tour-de-force title short story from the collection "Orientation," a monologue in which an office worker shows a new employee the ropes with bizarre, inane instructions: "This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it." Less loftily, Hamid's narrator's halfhearted apologies – "This book, I must now concede, may not have been the very best of guides to getting filthy rich in rising Asia" – also evoke the funny, tenacious optimism of the young Indian hotel manager in the recent movie "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," who keeps reassuring his alarmed residents, "Everything will be alright in the end. If it's not alright, it's not the end."