You and She, the Narrators - a Hybrid Form

A man’s hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view

photo by Will White

Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a coming-of-age story using an unusual hybrid point of view. Unlike a traditional second-person point of view or the very common omniscient third-person point of view, Hamid adopts both a second-person and third-person omniscient point of view, often within the same chapter. A bold move, a unique move and a move I am not sure works.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia tells the story of You from the rural village of his birth to the unnamed bustling city of his elementary and high schools to his time with the Idealists on through his rise to corporate king of the world. Mohsin uses the self-help genre to examine notions of the self, success and the extent to which we can ever transcend our childhoods.

Mohsin’s philosophical threads combined with a masterful ability to describe the details of extreme poverty make the book memorable. Where he stumbles, I think, is his use of the third-person point of view. As I’ve said elsewhere, all novels require suspension of disbelief, even novels purporting to be in the realist genre. The compression of time is but one example of how realist authors require us to suspend our natural disbelief in order to follow the story. So it isn’t his multiple uses of different points of view per se that is the problem.

Mohsin’s story fails, in part, because his use of the third person seems clunky. In his case, because he is a genius storyteller, it seems lazy, as though he dispensed with the challenge of writing the entire novel in the second person because he had more important sentences to write. As I learned when I wrote 500 or so words using the imperative, restricting myself to one point of view presented enormous challenges, challenges Mohsin seems unwilling to pursue.

An example: our protagonist endures a punishment at the hands of a cruel teacher.

Most of you (note: this is the second person plural) have in the past been punished by your teacher. You, as one of the brightest students, have drawn some of the most severe punishments. You attempt to hide your knowledge, but every so often bravado gets the better of you and it comes out, as it just has, and then there is hell to pay. Today your teacher reaches into the pocket of his tunic, where he keeps a small amount of course sand, and grips you by the ear, the sand on his fingertips adding abrasion to the enormous pressure he applies, so that your earlobe is not only crushed but also made raw and slightly bloody.

Besides the odd intrusion of the second-person plural at the sentence’s start, this paragraph follows a second-person point of view. So far so good.

But then Hamid decides to explain yet another level of nepotism alive in our protagonist’s community, which would be really cool in the second person. But Hamid dashes off a few sentences in the third-person omniscient.

Your teacher did not want to be a teacher. He wanted to be  a meter reader at the electric utility. Meter readers do not have to put up with children, work comparatively little, and what is more important, have greater opportunity for corruption and are hence both better off and held in higher regard in society. Nor was becoming a meter reader out of your teacher’s reach. His uncle worked for the electric utility. But the one position as meter reader this uncle was able to facilitate went, as all things most desirable in life invariably went, to your teacher’s elder brother.

Here what Hamid wants to tell us takes precedence over how he tells us. It is far easier to provide this information using the third person than it is in the second person. I’m not sure it works.

What do you think? Does Hamid’s hybrid approach work, especially when he moves from two different points-of-view within the same chapter?

Have read other books that does something similar?