Let's acknowledge right up front that this book is based on a gimmick, a slick writer's gimmick, and that to pull it off it's going to take a bit of work and luck and not a small amount of talent, and even then, it's risky.
When I read the opening sentence, "Look, unless you're writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron." and onto chapter two, where the author of the self-help book asks if all books aren't really "self-help" books:"It's remarkable how many books fall into the category of self-help. Why, for example, do you persist in reading that much-praised, breathtakingly boring, foreign novel, slogging through page after page after please-make-it-stop page of tar-slow prose and blush-inducing formal conceit, if not out of an impulse to understand distant lands that because of globalization are increasingly affecting life in your own?" He goes on to discuss the self-help aspects of pulp novels and winkingly says they're also a form of self-help, and by George, he's right! Of course all books are self-help books. We read to help ourselves in some way, whether it's to please ourselves, educate or challenge ourselves, or actually learn how to help ourselves. Strangely, I still wasn't sure if I was reading satire or a sweeping novel. I decided it's because I was, at least in part, reading both.
To be clear, this is never an actual self-help book. Mohsin Hamid has taken the steps to "get rich in rising Asia" as a way to tell a sweeping narrative about a man who starts in rural poverty and works himself through various stages to great wealth in the City. An achingly beautiful love story, a rags-to-riches nameless hero's story, the story of a man who is simplistic about wealth equaling happiness to start who goes through ups and downs, like people do over a life, learning about love and other things in the process. It sounds so basic, and yet because we have this "self-help" writer to comment on and tell a story inside of a self-help book, it's not at all. And of course, toward the end, the self-help writer admits this was not the most helpful book for getting rich in rising Asia. It made me laugh aloud several times, which isn't something one often finds in a tale like the one found in the self-help book's pages.
Nothing is ever named, but we can easily feel moved to the place in the novel with tons of sights, smells, touches thrown in, every food tasted is described richly. Equally rich with a grin are some less satisfying sensory experiences. Because we go through the "steps" of getting rich, we feel the poverty and then the isolation of being on the lowest rung in the big city. The socioeconomic landscape is as richly woven as the natural one. Upward mobility and globalization are not glossed over, but they aren't judged either. They are just portrayed as they are, while we follow the "you" of the novel - the main character - through his pursuit of getting filthy rich in rising Asia.
There are absolutely gorgeous turns of phrase and light-touch moments of beautiful writing between the purposefully clunky "self-help" sections. The difference is stark, and I loved the way one bled easily into the other, then when the next chapter started, boom, back to the hard language of self-help.
If you could see my copy, you would note that as I read, more and more highlighting was done, more pages are turned down in an effort to be able to find important or lovely passages again. I ruined this poor paperback in one read, but I would have it no other way. I was in tears toward the end of this novel, and that's way more than any self-help book could've ever promised me. So for me, the risky gimmick absolutely paid off in a reward I will treasure and return to again and again.