'Five Star Billionaire' Shows The Human Cost Of Progress

Jul 5, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 11:37 am

The plot of Five Star Billionaire, with its multiple protagonists, may seem deceptively familiar: a neglected boy claws his way from rags to riches; a country girl tries to make her way in the city; a city girl tries to prove her worth in a man's world of business; a rock star falls victim to the fame machine; and a rich man tumbles from grace. Yet Tash Aw's chosen setting of Shanghai, with the dynamic tumult of that nation's modernization and the sea of internal and external migrants seeking to claim a part of the new economy, delivers a book that goes beyond the bounds of the ordinary.

The story is interspersed with advice for aspirant billionaires — a self-help manual. "Choose the Right Moment to Launch Yourself"; "Always Rebound After Each Failure." This is a trope shared, coincidentally, by Mohsin Hamid in his How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also published this year. It is not surprising that the zeitgeist would lead two such perceptive authors to take a similar route in their examination of a region whose Industrial Revolution embodies the opportunities and pitfalls of the market economy. Where Hamid's book was a short, sharp narrative of a single life in an unnamed country (presumably Pakistan), Aw takes on a broader, sweeping view of the scene and provides a richly drawn landscape of compelling characters, and a deep immersion in their lives.

The protagonists of Five Star Billionaire are brought to Shanghai by very different circumstances. Tying the multiple narrative strands together is the enigmatic Five Star Billionaire himself, a man whose identity is hidden for much of the book. His are the homilies, scattered throughout the book, as he explains the hard work and guile that have made him a success. One of these acolytes is Phoebe, a young woman who takes on a false identity to find employment and, hopefully, a rich boyfriend or husband. As she doggedly interprets the injunctions of the Five Star Billionaire — stealing another young woman's ID card in order to gain work clearance, living off instant noodles to save money for a high-quality "genuine" fake designer handbag to impress her Internet dates — Aw gently explores the human cost of modernization and consumer culture. In his nuanced characterization of Phoebe, we recognize the desperation of a quest that forms, in the end, a poignant indictment of a society devoid of sincerity, where relationships are built on appearance, artifice and pretense.

In the course of that quest, Phoebe develops an online relationship with Gary, a pop star whose meteoric rise to fame and fortune has crash-landed. As their friendship develops, the two become emotionally dependent on each other, typing out intense conversations deep into the night. But this is a false intimacy. Never meeting face to face, mediated by the computer screen, neither is ever telling the whole truth, and the reader is overwhelmed by a sense of opportunities squandered. Aw, with gentle compassion and a keen understanding of the human condition, deftly manipulates his characters as they succumb to the lure of this city where everything seems possible. Even as the reader is able to acknowledge the flaws of the purposefully shallow Phoebe and of Gary's pampered indolence, for example, we find ourselves compelled by their longings and willing them to a success that Aw is unequivocal in exposing as ultimately conflicted.

Five Star Billionaire is a fiercely contemporary tale of tradition, modernity and the cost of progress. Is fate really determined by sheer force of will alone? When all seems laid before you for the taking, what decisions will you make? The Five Star Billionaire, in the opening of the book, confides, "I was conscious of the price of life's treasures but not yet fully aware of their many limitations." As Aw brings the stories of these five characters to a disturbing but satisfying conclusion, perhaps the best answer is that it is within these very limitations, should we choose to accept them, that we find salvation.

Ellah Allfrey is deputy editor of Granta magazine.

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A new novel tells the story of five people who moved to Shanghai looking for certain kinds of success: love, money, fame. The book is called "Five Star Billionaire." The author is Tash Aw. In 2010, Aw told NPR that many of his characters are trying to figure out where they belong. Our reviewer, Ellah Allfrey, points out that success is not the same as belonging.

ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: The plot may seem familiar, simple even: a poor boy claws his way from rags to riches, a country girl tries to make it in the city, a city girl proves herself in the world of business, a rock star falls from fame. But Tash Aw's "Five Star Billionaire" goes beyond the bounds of the ordinary. The story is set in Shanghai. We're in the middle of China's modernization. Everyone's hoping for a piece of the new economy.

And dispersed throughout the book are passages addressed to aspiring tycoons. Choose the right moment to launch yourself, and always rebound after each failure. Writing these is the mysterious five-star billionaire himself. For most of the book, we don't know who he is. But he explains the hard work and guile that have made him a success through these little homilies.

And reading them is Phoebe, a young woman from a rural village who steals an ID card so she can work in Shanghai. She lives off instant noodles to save up for a high-quality fake handbag that she believes will impress her Internet dates. And she gives Tash Aw a way to explore the human cost of this consumer culture. There's a desperation in Phoebe. And in the end, it's her quest that exposes a society devoid of sincerity.

In the course of that quest, Phoebe develops an online relationship with Gary. He's a pop star who rose to fame and then crash landed, hard. As their friendship develops, they type out conversations late into the night. But it's a false intimacy. They never meet face to face. They never tell the whole truth. And for the reader, what you're left with is a sense of squandered opportunities.

There are other characters and other lives described here, but you'll have to read the book to find out about them. And you should read it also for Tash Aw's gentle compassion and keen understanding of the human condition. You'll root for his characters as they succumb to a city where everything seems possible. You'll hope for them to succeed, even though, as Tash Aw shows us, success is ultimately a pretty conflicted business.

CORNISH: The book is "Five Star Billionaire" by Tash Aw. Ella Allfrey is our reviewer. She's the deputy editor of the literary magazine Granta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.