I am a late adopter. I got a cell phone only after my housemates mutinied over paying for a landline, and I resignedly started tweeting just months ago. I haven't been tempted by the Kindle or Nook, because one of the few things I love as much as reading is handling periodicals and books, with their varied textures and smells. But my history suggests an inevitable surrender. When that happens, Mohsin Hamid's new novel is exactly the sort of thing I'll e-read, while the likes of Terry Tempest Williams' new poetic memoir will stay in print.
Hamid makes note of this transition in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: "When you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen." A native of Lahore, Pakistan, with a swanky Western education and a tattered international passport, Hamid writes trim, fierce, formally daring novels that offer vividly jaundiced views of a modern South Asia where small cogs of local corruption meet the massive gears of globalization. His latest would hold up great on a pale screen, as the vessel is less important than the voice within.
Following two acclaimed novels, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is an old-fashioned coming-of-age story, and ultimately a romance, cloaked in a newfangled self-help book. Each chapter begins with a bullet point—"Move to the City," "Get an Education" and, much later, "Be Prepared to Use Violence"—that ironically announces a stage in the progress of a rural South Asian boy toward becoming an urbane water tycoon. Actually, your progress. Hamid's second-person mode, a hallmark of self-help rather than fiction, implicates "you" as the one navigating this labyrinth of bribes and scams and powerbrokers.
In fact, no proper names appear; only fathers and sisters, the village and the city, and the "pretty girl" from home whose fitful upward tack is the elusive measure of the narrator's own. This archetypal language registers changes in his perspective: Eventually, a new character is introduced as his accountant first, father-in-law second. This fellow pops up from nowhere because Hamid leaves gaps in the narrative, clasping virtuosic set pieces between glib but penetrating meditations on self and help. Major events transpire between chapters, emphasizing life's breathless current as we rush to catch up.
The self is slippery, Hamid writes, but "slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry," and the self he constructs around "you" is aptly fluid. It seeps off into the minds of other characters or swoops out for panoramic X-rays of the bureaucracies and cables linking individuals to systems. For all his pungent intimacy, Hamid loves setups such as "From the perspective of the world's national security apparatuses," which occurs in a bravura chapter where the story is refracted through information and surveillance technology.
With this flexible scale, he packs a novel's sweep and depth into a novella's length and briskness. Hardly a page lacks some thickly layered insight or darkly ringing phrase to linger over. The narrator's father, a servant cook, sees his ingredients not as "prickly leaves and hairy little berries for an effervescent salad, tan stalks of wheat for a heavenly balloon of stone-ground, stove-top-baked flatbread," but as mere "units of backbreaking toil." The prose is arch but accommodates seamless turns of tone, from savage to melancholy, refined to lewd.
In particular there is a recurrent emphasis on flatulence and waste, which like everything else is caught up in an elaborate game of status. Hamid boils it down to "my-shit-just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty" and "which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence." This is one of many ways in which water symbolically suffuses the book. The danger of getting filthy rich in Asia is shown to be gradual isolation behind armed guards and cynical relationships, until one lives "for no real purpose, like the functioning of some legacy water meter, cut off from the billing system, whose measurements swirl by unrecorded."
Early on, the narrator describes a river used in consecutive stages for drinking, washing and defecating, the effluvia flowing down through village after village. When he moves to the city, a hillock of trash by an open sewer subtly echoes that same ridge and gully where his father "expelled the contents of his colon." This polluted stream represents everything our narrator swims against, like a salmon, from routine criminality to approximate legitimacy against all odds. We know how the story of the salmon who makes it upstream always ends. But Hamid pushes further, offering an unexpected grace note and leaving behind a rotund question. How much filth does it take to dilute purity—a lot, or just a drop?
Other than crossing my desk at the same time, the only thing When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice has in common with Hamid's novel is, a little uncannily, a length of 228 pages. Terry Tempest Williams is a conservationist, essayist, children's book author and poet. Her spare new volume treads a silvery line between memoir and poetry, much in the manner of her prior Refuge. Birds begins with Williams receiving her ailing mother's journals and then reporting, with characteristic pith: "A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals." Williams opens each journal. All are blank.
What follows is a soft blizzard of narrative strategies—lists, definitions, aphorisms, poetic essays on Mormonism and femininity, biographical sketches, excerpts from Williams' own journals and those of her grandmother—that gradually blanket and deepen the enigma of those clean white pages. The book itself is done up like a journal, with an embossed cover of thick ridged paper and a space in the front to write your name. The pages are unevenly cut, with quite a few of them right after Williams' startling discovery left eloquently blank. It feels good in your hands, at once rich and humble.
And this is where we run into the limitations of the e-reader, convenience be damned. When a beautiful text is inextricable from a beautiful object, only black squiggles on pulped wood will do.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pulped wood or pale screens?"