In his third novel, Tash Aw focuses on the dreams and schemes of five characters who have come to China’s largest metropolis to strike it rich. Presented as a self-help guide, it has an omnipresent sixth character – the city itself, writes Malcolm Forbes
In the world of fiction, success stories don't sell. Fiction prefers flops, or at least falls from grace. Dickens is more credible, and by extension more readable, when callously crushing his bright-eyed optimists with the incubus of interminable court cases than slickly reversing fortunes by way of convenient benefactors. Tales of success are best confined to real-life chronicles. They are the domain of the self-help guide, the rags-to-riches, heart-on-sleeve journeys shared by provincial losers turned international tycoons.
Five Star Billionaire, the third novel by Tash Aw - a writer born in Taipei, brought up in Malaysia and now living in London - charts the get-rich-quick schemes and dreams of five disparate characters that have descended on Shanghai and pinned their hopes on the city. It follows the lead of an earlier fiction release this year, Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, in that it fictionalises the self-help guide. Aw's chapters have advisory titles like "Choose the Right Moment to Launch Yourself" or "Be Prepared to Sacrifice Everything". Indeed, the chapters concerning self-made Walter Chao are supposedly excerpts from his autobiographical self-help bible, Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire, each of them headed with different "How-to wisdom".
If Hamid's novel dealt with a rising Asia, Aw's centres upon a city that has already risen. As a result, his cast is faced with a wealth of unexpected challenges: not every door is open, and many commercial avenues were long ago sealed off. Opportunity exists but isn't as bottomless as before. Phoebe, a recent arrival, faces the greatest slog - mired in factory work, thwarted by one broken promise after another, until the theft of another woman's ID card and the hard-won decision to find a rich man presents a way out. In contrast, Justin is "an unspectacular but canny businessman" who belongs to a rich dynasty swimming in old money. However, after realising the property game is not for him, he breaks down, burns out and slowly attempts to slough off his self-loathing and rebuild his life as the family empire goes bust. Gary is a manufactured pin-up pop star who also goes off the rails due to the overbearing pressure to succeed. We watch him unravel - fighting in bars, addicted to internet porn, suffering from insomnia - and fail disastrously, and then forge a new, lowlier career from the wreckage. LSE-educated Yinghui, described in the Shanghai Daily as "a super-efficient, humourless automaton", has flourishing upmarket lingerie stores and a high-class spa but is willing to take uncalculated risks to enlarge her influence. Walter Chao, the mogul who has truly made it, is also a philanthropist ("the work that really matters to me - the business of giving") but the more we read, the more we wonder if his intentions are entirely honourable.
The novel unfolds with each chapter revolving around each of its characters. Aw's acclaimed debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), clung to a similar pattern but with four characters in Malaya in the run-up to war. This time around his characters, Malaysian expats in contermporary China, feel more rounded, both the high-flyers and those on the skids. Some of them meet, some only come close. Justin befriends Phoebe's flatmate. Justin's brother once dated Yinghui. Phoebe used to have a poster of Gary on her wall. When the characters begin to interconnect, either through chance encounters or deeper and deliberate exchanges, we glimpse more revealing angles and hitherto unseen facets. Aw's cast explores Shanghai while we examine them through stealthy kaleidoscopic shifts, a series of accretions and subtractions that never quite give us the perfect whole. The dilemma for a novelist who fractures his book in such a way is that he becomes a kind of plate-spinner, forced to keep each of his separate parts aloft, at play. If a character fails to mesmerise then we baulk when forced to wade through another chapter devoted to him. By the same token, we bid those that we like farewell at the end of their segment and must wait 50 pages until they reappear. One less-than-compelling character won't necessarily ruin such a novel but it will dent the narrative and impede its momentum. In the main, Aw pulls off his authorial feat. If there is a weak link it is pop star Gary, whose switch from a superstar selling out stadiums to a struggling start-again artist playing gigs in shopping malls feels hastily sketched and packed with clichés.
That said, Aw is too good a writer for us to dismiss these sections completely. Gary's failure - as all failure in fiction - still commands our attention. Aw delineates Gary's downfall and in doing so turns us into gloating tabloid readers, reveling in schadenfreude, "only interested in his fall, not his mediocrity. Only the sensational has a right to exist in the pages of modern life; there is no space for the ordinary". Passages like this show Aw retracting his lens from his Shanghai scrutiny and pointing it at the world at large. Five Star Billionaire tracks five characters in Shanghai but their success and our reaction to it is more universal, not solely confined to one character in one place. Consequently, each of Aw's characters is a kind of everyman anywhere.
Aw doesn't take many linguistic risks, and certain phrasing seems skew-whiff. A top restaurant is "a classy joint"; Phoebe thinks Gary is "so dreamy"; swindlers and liars are "bamboozlers"; a youthful, more wayward Gary is a "miscreant". Great slabs of backstory are diverting but shine little light on the present. When Aw lingers too long around a character's earlier years, we find ourselves concurring with Walter, who says, "the past is the past - what's important is what one does next".
A final quibble is that while there is much pleasure to be had in witnessing these lives interlocking - to the extent we smile when acknowledging each gentle click of coincidence - there comes a point when contact becomes so convenient we begin to doubt Shanghai's size. Aw's characters suddenly evolve from small fish in a large pond into large fish (plus one shark) in a large pond. A last word should go to the star of the show, the novel's sixth character - Shanghai. Walter tells Phoebe it is a beautiful but harsh place. "Life here is not really life, it is a competition," and Aw is as adept at rendering both the reality of the megacity and its illusory charm. Gone are the temples, opium dens and low-lane houses of Ishiguro's world or the beguiling fiction of Eileen Chang.
Instead, what we get is modernity at its most bracing. Justin views the skyscrapers from his window, taking in "their electric personalities" at night, and on misty days observes their "geometric shapes shattering into a million fragments before regrouping". Gary and Phoebe aspire to or feed off the city's energy, "the fast-forward glitter of Shanghai" but are like moths to a flame. Yinghui gets closest to the place by highlighting its breakneck pace, how "despite the restaurants and shops and art galleries and the feeling of unbridled potential, Shanghai would always seem to be accelerating a couple of steps ahead of you, no matter how hard you worked or played".
That other money-obsessed novel, George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, features an impoverished protagonist who is nonetheless determined to stay pure from the "money-stink" and all its foul trappings. Five Star Billionaire is its polar-opposite, its four leads either desperate to be as "superabundantly, incalculably wealthy" as Walter, or working at ways to accept their given lot.
Money lies at the heart of the novel but, as with Orwell's, so too does loneliness; these are hollow lives in dire need of enrichment.
Mercifully, Aw resists any moralising at the end, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions from these characters' fates and to decide how forgiving Shanghai is and whether it allows second chances. This is a fine, cleverly orchestrated novel, the majority of its sections playing in tune with conviction and brio.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.