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TV's OK, but best-selling writer Mohsin Hamid contends there's still nothing like a novel

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Mohsin Hamid Inprint author March 2014
Author Mohsin Hamid Photo by © Jillian Edelstein
Moshin Hamid Inprint book cover Filthy Rich March 2014
Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia Courtesy photo
Mohsin Hamid Inprint author March 2014
Moshin Hamid Inprint book cover Filthy Rich March 2014
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Three weeks ago, the award-winning and best-selling novelist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid made a very embarrassing and perhaps even taboo confession in the New York Times on behalf of contemporary novelists. Some of them (maybe the honest ones) are spending as much time watching television — like the rest of us binge viewing Mad Men and Game of Thrones — as reading their fellow writers’ fiction.

As someone who reads an awful lot of books but at the time of that the Times article’s publication had fallen deep into the Louisiana literary swamp of HBO’s True Detective, I knew one question I had to ask Hamid when I had a chance to speak to him before his trip to Houston for his appearance at the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series Monday night.

 If television has the time to tell expansive stories and the quality of that storytelling has surged in the past decade, does the novel still have its own unique qualities to give to readers? 

If television has the time to tell expansive stories and the quality of that storytelling has surged in the past decade, does the novel still have its own unique qualities to give to readers?

For Hamid the answer is a definite yes, and it all comes from the one-on-one, very intimate relationship between writer and reader.

“I think the fundamental difference (between the novel and television) is that the novel operates at the level of thought,” explained Mohsin. “Those words are thought; therefore, the novel remains a way for one human being to contain the thoughts of another human being. That connection and the need for that connection will always be there.”

Mohsin gives tribute to our new golden age of television, not just in the U.S but across the globe, as a very powerful form of storytelling, but for him the novel goes beyond storytelling.

“There’s value when one human being encounters another human is this incredibly intimate form. I think that’s what the novel can do better than any other form and will continue to do,” he said.

The relationship between you and the author

This intimacy between the writer and reader is obviously something that Hamid was thinking much on during the creation of his latest acclaimed novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The book is framed as a self-help book where an authoritative narrator advises and observes a nameless “You” throughout the book in You’s quest to go from a sickly child shivering under his mother’s bed in a nameless village to becoming the multi-millionaire king of bottled water in a nameless rising Asian country.

 This intimacy between the writer and reader is obviously something that Hamid was thinking much on during the creation of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia 

As the book progresses, something strange happens within the relationship between narrator, author, character and reader, as it becomes difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.

“There are times in the novel where the book actually speaks from me the person actually writing the book, not a narrator, not a character, but a human being writing the book,” described Hamid when I asked about the relationship between the You character, the narrator, and the reader. “That kind of moment for me is at the heart of what the book is about. Trying to create that sort of bridge between writer and reader, between reader and character, between writer and character, that kind of blurring was very important to me.”

As the reader becomes submerged in You’s struggles, failures, loves and losses, the distinctions between character, reader, and narrator become less certain. Yet for Hamid, this is what novels should do, “blur” that line between the living writer and reader and the imagined characters.

A nameless city, a timeless present

Hamid continues that blurring intimacy in two other ways in the book. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia contains almost no names of people or places and 70 years pass in the life of You while the reader remains always “in the present moment” and in the technology of the first two decades of this century. Consequently, the novel seems to always be set in the reader’s city and present.

Hamid’s current hometown of Lahore, Pakistan (at times in his life he’s also called California, London, and New York home) serves as the template for the novel’s setting, and there are certain qualities it possess that seem specifically Asian. However by giving the city no name even as it pulses, grows and changes throughout the novel, Hamid makes any and every real sprawling city in the world into You’s city, again bringing the reader closer into the novel which could easily be set in their city, whether Mexico City or Shanghai.

“I wanted to assert the view that any place can be central,” Hamid explained. And even the advice the book dispenses to become filthy rich could almost work anywhere where capitalism reigns. “It very easily could be set in Africa or Latin America and possibly in parts of the United States.”

The city could almost even be Houston. Though he’s traveled to Texas in the past, Hamid has never been here, but is looking forward to the visit because old friends have settled here and because “Houston symbolized — at least to somebody coming from abroad — symbolizes a certain vision of what an American city can be.”

Mohsin Hamid shares the Stude Concert Hall stage at Rice University with novelist Daniel Alarcón on Monday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 for general admission.

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