Five Star Billionaireby Tash Aw Published 02 Jul 2013
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|Publisher||Spiegel & Grau|
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An entertaining, expansive, and eye-opening novel that captures the vibrance of China today, by a writer whose previous work has been called “mesmerizing,” “haunting,” “breathtaking,” “mercilessly gripping,” “seductive,” and “luminous.”
Phoebe is a factory girl who has come to Shanghai with the promise of a job - but when she arrives she discovers that the job doesn't exist. Gary is a country boy turned pop star who is spinning out of control. Justin is in Shanghai to expand his family's real-estate empire, only to find that he might not be up to the task. He has long harboured a crush on Yinghui, who has reinvented herself from a poetry-loving, left-wing activist to a successful Shanghai businesswoman. She is about to make a deal with the shadowy figure of Walter Chao, the five-star billionaire of the novel, who - with his secrets and his schemes - has a hand in the lives of each of the characters. All bring their dreams and hopes to Shanghai, the shining symbol of the New China, which, like the novel's characters, is constantly in flux and which plays its own fateful role in the lives of its inhabitants. Five Star Billionaire, the dazzling kaleidoscopic new novel by the award-winning writer Tash Aw, offers rare insight into China today, with its constant transformations and its promise of possibility.
"Five Star Billionaire" Reviews
I'm trying to read all the Booker longlist in the next month, and this was the first on my list. Full disclosure: I met Tash last month at a writers conference in Norwich, and he is a wonderful person, but that's not why I'm giving his novel five stars. It's an amazing book and I was drawn so quickly and deeply into the fictional world of these expat Malaysians trying to make it in Shanghai. The plotting is masterful and the narrative voice is so compelling. I couldn't put it down.
I adored this.
There's something universally appealing about becoming filthy rich. Earlier this year, Mohsin Hamid explored the topic in his book "How To Become Filthy Rich in Rising Asia." Now Tash Aw weighs in with Five Star Billionaire. Interestingly, each of these accomplished authors employ a "how to" self-help book conceit (in this case, How To Achieve Greatness, How To Manage Time and so on).
The problem -- or perhaps the point -- of this novel is, after a while, the strivers and the wannabes begin to blend together in a patina of sameness, threads in the fabric of Shanghai. Each of Tash Aw's characters is searching for success and wealth, which won't necessarily equate with happiness. Each arrives in Shanghai with an amorphous identity, looking to the city to define who they are. And each carries the seeds of self-destruction, with the inability to engage in deep introspection. Each, in a word, is false and self-deceptive. As one character says, "There is not one aspect of myself that I haven't lied about."
Phoebe is a factory girl in rural Malaysia, determined to reinvent herself and make it big in Shanghai. The way to a real success for her is to accumulate the fake accoutrements that Shanghai is known for: a fake LV (read: Louis Vuitton) purse, a fake "expensive" watch, and so on. In her recreation of herself, she becomes not "more than" but "less than." She is, for me, the most compelling of the characters and perhaps the one with the most to gain -- or lose.
Justin, the scion of a wealthy real estate family, is in Shanghai to salvage his family's disappearing prospects, but fears that he will not be able to live up to expectations. Leong Yinghui runs a highly successful high-end lingerie company but falls into the ultimate stereotype: the woman who does well in business but is a failure in her personal life (and oh, it would be great to retire that stereotype!) Gary is a pop idol who sabotages his own spiraling career through a drunken night club altercation. And finally, there's Walter Chao, the first-person narrative of the self-help book and the eponymous "five star billionaire".
All these individuals will rub against each other, testing fate and becoming intertwined in their quest to move ahead. Sometimes the interactions seem organic; sometimes they don't. I paused in several places to determine whether they - or the situations they were in -- passed the test of credibility.
Having said that - and in all fairness - I wonder if I'm criticizing the author for writing the book I want him to write instead of the book he DID write. And THAT book is done exceedingly well with a powerful depiction of Shanghai, a ruthless city on the make, a city that encourages dreaming but uncaringly spits the dreamers out at any opportunity. It's a city of fake luxury goods, iconic sites (such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) carved from humps of snow, and false individuals who hide behind their created images and Internet exchanges to forge a tenuous sense of intimacy. Tash Aw writes, "This is what happens in Shanghai. People say it is the size of a small country but it is not: It is bigger, like a whole continent, with a heart as deep and unknown as the forests of the Amazon and so vast and wild as the deserts of Africa. People come here like explorers, but soon they disappear and no one remembers them; no one even hears them as they fade away." Tash Aw creates an exceptional sense of place...particularly a sense of place in a particular moment in time.
Five Star Billionaire - long-listed for the Booker prize - is an ambitious novel and it's well-written with what I suspect is a great deal of authenticity. I would not discourage anyone from reading it. Initially, I gave this book 3 stars but found I cannot get it out of my head and came back and re-rated it. I came to realize the fault may not be in the stars; it may be in me, the reader.
Five Star Billionaire was not, unfortunately, a five star book. (Sorry.)
This novel is set in Shanghai, and it deals with five main characters, whose stories are covered in alternating chapters. There is Phoebe, an ambitious young woman who has come from Malaysia to Shanghai to find love and get rich; Justin, the heir to a fortune who becomes a recluse when his family's business fails; Yinghui, a successful entrepreneur; and Gary, a teen pop star who suffers a painful fall from grace. Then there's Walter Chao, the self-styled 'five star billionaire' who acts as a link between the others - although it's never quite clear whether this is his real name (he writes books under a number of pseudonyms), or indeed whether he is truly rich. 'Fakeness' is a major theme throughout the novel: whether it's Phoebe's counterfeit designer bag or Gary's media image, the characters are all putting on some kind of front.
At the beginning, I was sucked into the atmospheric depiction of Shanghai. I tend to like books of this type - in which a number of vaguely linked characters within one city are studied separately - and I was reminded of Sam Thompson's Communion Town and some of David Mitchell's work. I was really interested in Phoebe immediately, and although the other characters didn't captivate me in quite the same way, I wanted to know what would happen to them, and was interested to see how their stories would converge. However, I ultimately felt that rather than building up to anything exciting, the plot just slowly, quietly, petered out. A couple of fairly dramatic things happened towards the end, but they happened without much fanfare and it didn't even feel like the reader was supposed to care much.
The whole narrative is peppered with first-person interjections from the so-called billionaire, while the rest of the characters' stories are related in third person. It all reminded me a bit of Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (another one I started but never finished), particularly the self-help-book-style chapter titles. There's no doubt that Chao, or whoever he is, is an intriguing character, but I didn't feel the promise of this setup was fully exploited either. I know it's sometimes best for an unreliable narrator to remain unknowable, but I would have liked some resolution as to whether anything about Chao's story and how he presented himself was actually true.
This was my second attempt at reading a novel on the 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist: the first, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, was abandoned because although it had the bones of an interesting story and was well-written, I found it too dull and unengaging to continue past the halfway point. The same sort of thing could be said about this, really. It's another book I can't say anything particularly terrible about - but nor can I bring myself to get excited about any aspect of it. I liked the setup and the setting, but it was all a bit forgettable and it could have been so much better.
Another atmosphere driven book, but because I found this one more interesting than Harvest, 4 stars, not 3. The hero/antihero of this book is Shanghai, the epitome of the 21st century megalopolis, ever expanding, ever growing, glittering, energetic, and yet with pockets of an older life, a few remaining "heritage buildings." Aw shows us the incredible wealth that there is to be made in Shanghai, as well as how its poorer citizens live. Most importantly, he shows us a society constantly in motion where a meteoric rise is one step from a crushing fall, and people's lives and careers can have many such ups and downs in the space of a few years, just as old neighborhoods can disappear and new skyscrapers spring up seemingly overnight. The energy is giddy on the way up, but, with so many millions, any one can disappear, and be forgotten, if they pause or stumble even briefly. "Disappear" is a word that echos and repeats throughout the book.
I found Aw's depiction of Shanghai wholly absorbing -- I was both enchanted and horrified - he does that good a job of putting you there. He also makes Malaysia come vividly to life - whether it's the small northeastern villages and towns where each of his migrant protagonists hales from, or the more modern (but still small potatoes compared to Shanghai) KL, or even a rundown seaside estate. In Malaysia, as in Shanghai, the theme of landscapes changing - disappearing - as forest gives way to housing development, heritage building to skyscraper, is very strong.
Aw is perhaps less successful with people than he is with landscapes. He has 5 main characters (all from rural Malaysia, all seeking their fortunes in Shanghai) and while all were very interesting, some were more fully realized then others (Yinghui and Gary worked the best for me) and stereotype and caricature were sometimes a little too close at hand. For all the characters, the overriding theme is failure to connect - they grope towards each other - but fail to make true contact, and when they fail to connect, Shanghai swallows them up. Mostly that works, but some plots seem too neatly tied up, while others just leave you wondering. (I remained mystified by Walter and Pheobe's relationship - if anyone understood what Walter was up to, message me).
All in all, thoroughly engrossing - I really didn't want to put it down, and disagree with reviewers who found it too long. I have been to many places in Asia, but not mainland China, not Shanghai, partly because it seems daunting, and this book certainly did not lessen that feeling, but it also underscored that Shanghai - in energy, in wealth creation and destruction, in attraction for goods and labor from all over the world - is to the 21st century as my hometown, NY, was to the 20th. Think a visit is overdue!
Five Star Billionaire
When i started reading the book I liked nonchalance and easiness with which the author writes. I could see his ambition and I hoped the story itself would develop from the style. But it did not happen for me at all unfortunately.
All the characters, especially the male ones seemed to me morally damaged and emotionally mute. I did not feel sympathy to any of them. Phoebe is the most fake and the most off putting one. Male characters are so similar to each other as if they have been cloned from a single template. The most sympathetic and plausible as a human being is Yinghui. But at the end i think the author has overdone her character as well. I could not believe that any business woman with such long experience would not check the financial side of a deal before leveraging herself up to the head with the bank loan. It did not feel plausible enough even considering her growing emotional attachment to the man in the centre of it.
The pace of the novel as well was tiresome. It has started well, but slowed later and felt almost repetitive by parts until the final twist. The quotes from Walter's self help book as a chapter headings I found plainly irritating and meaningless.
Some reviews pointed out on the strong sense of place. The novel is set in Shanghai. There are a few fine descriptions, but overall I did not feel it. For me it could be Moscow, Rio or even New York some 20 years ago - any huge, busy, emerging metropolis will have similar characteristics. I've never been in China and I did not feel I got closer to know it based upon this novel.
Overall it created an impression of the relatively unsuccessful attempt of Chinese Monte Christo story in a modern urban setting.
If it would be factually based it might work as a piece of reporting in the FT Weekend or a similar publication. But it did not work for me as a fiction.