How to make it in ChinaSeptember 4, 2013: 9:21 AM ET
Tash Aw's latest novel, Five Star Billionaire, is a revelatory -- and often, rollicking -- tale of unbridled ambition in the rising East.
By Daniel Roberts, writer-reporter
FORTUNE -- If the most common trope in fiction in the past 10 years has been the "9/11 novel," we may now be seeing the beginnings of the next wave: stories of success (or at least the hunt for it) in Asia.
On the heels of two recent novels we reviewed in the spring, Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians and Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, comes Tash Aw's newest book, Five Star Billionaire. As with the bestselling 2011 baseball novel The Art of Fielding, which takes its title from a shortstop's manual that the novel's protagonist cherishes, Aw's book pays homage to a fictional guidebook, Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire: the narrator imparts step-by-step tips on how to get rich.
If the theme sounds familiar, it may well be because Hamid's book is likewise written as a faux self-improvement guide.
Aw's novel, though, is more intimate and accessible than Hamid's, who sets his book in a nameless Asian country (likely Pakistan, but it isn't divulged) and whose prose is almost utilitarian in its spareness. The background for Five Star Billionaire, by contrast, is the glimmering, booming city of Shanghai -- a place where Aw makes us feel that anything is possible.
Hamid's narrator is removed and anonymous, ruthless in his advice to the reader. Aw's narrator is affectingly, if uncomfortably, real: Walter Chao, a real estate mogul whose friendly, instructive tone in the get-rich guides he writes doesn't match his actions. As Walter amasses his fortune, he stomps on everyone who gets in his way -- or at least crosses paths with him. Two of these figures echo some of Walter's ambition: Phoebe, a scrappy girl who has come to Shanghai armed with one of Walter's books, is willing to use another girl's ID card to get a job; Yinghui, a shrewd businesswoman, is self-made and strong-willed, but also too trusting. Two others -- Justin, who finds himself unable to live up to the burdens of his family business, and Gary, a disgraced singer -- are more hapless.
The perspective switches, though not quite seamlessly, from one character to the next -- another theme that has been in vogue in contemporary fiction (think: Let the Great World Spin and A Visit From the Goon Squad). And while it's a device that has arguably been played out, it's an oddly fitting structure for a book set in China, a country that continues to fascinate and influence the American business sphere.
The idea of the struggle for wealth there has made its way into popular fiction, from Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars to Wei Hu's Shanghai Baby to pretty much everything written by Mo Yan, who won last year's Nobel Prize in literature and whose incisive, raucous novels about China have since become popular in the States.
Five Star Billionaire steps confidently into this crowd, and its mordant depiction of China's sprawling economic scene -- this is no Silicon Valley -- is particularly compelling. Aw's characters are a far cry from the lot at Harvard Business School. They are strivers looking to collect what they can from Shanghai, while they can.
In opening the book, business titan Walter recalls that, as a child, he dreamed of one day owning a whole building. Then he shatters that idea -- not because it was absurd to hope for such a thing as a boy, but because, as he says: "I should never have been so modest in my ambitions, nor waited so long to pursue them." Walter shares anecdotes like the time a newspaper reporter offended him in an interview. (The entrepreneur's response is to buy the paper years later and fire the editor that commissioned the interview.) Walter extracts a lesson like this from every key moment of his life, it seems -- as the book's four other central characters struggle through their own business and life tutorials.
As the story weaves on, characters bump into one another, but never in a way that sticks. It's a bit of an emotional disconnect -- but then through these encounters we get entertaining tidbits of perspective that are telling of attitudes in China and elsewhere.
When Justin's family's company, for example, is mentioned in business magazines as "Henry Lim and Family -- Diversified Holdings," he feels the phrase carries "with it an accusation, as if the source of wealth they had amassed was uncertain and, most probably, unsavory." His father scolds him, "You're too sensitive ... What do you care what other people think?" But he does care, as he obsessively reads the negative comments about himself on a blog: "Justin Lim has been trained by his family to be uncaring and ruthless ... Justin Lim will stop at nothing to fulfill his aims; he will crush you like he crushes insects."
In another revealing moment, Yinghui experiences the caustic sexism that comes from being a successful businesswoman when she accidentally receives an email in which she is referred to as "Ultrawoman," "Dragon Queen," "Terminatress," and "Rambo." Throughout the novel, Aw manages to paint his characters' business plans and their high-class parties in ways that are both drily funny and eminently plausible.
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The book takes its time in grabbing you, and at the beginning too often introduces its characters with a factual, Wikipedia-like summary of the things they've done. But once you come to know each character and their individual ambitions, it speeds along nicely -- though some characters shine more than others. Justin's embarrassment and self-doubt are real and raw, as is Yinghui's desire to be taken seriously by her more successful peers, but it is difficult to muster much sympathy for fallen-idol Gary.
In otherwise positive reviews, some critics have dinged the book for its less-than-thrilling resolution. The New York Times called it "a long book that simmers without ever coming to a boil," and The Guardian wrote that "the pace is too unvarying." Such criticism is fair. But that said, the overall reading experience doesn't suffer for the book's unresolved storylines. Aw's novel is about the journey, not the arrival. Getting there is all, not half, the fun. For those who want a taste of Shanghai's entrepreneurial obsession, Five Star Billionaire is a banquet unto itself.