The novel is written in a self-help format and that’s why, I guess, Hamid has not given the book any clear geographical setting basing it loosely in Lahore (Pakistan) which he conveys to the reader by local descriptions and current events the city has been in news for.
The fact that it’s written following the conventions of a self-help book makes ‘How to’ quite different from other novels. None of the characters has names. The protagonist has been addressed in the second person, instead of third or first as is the norm. The narrative skips lot of details that a usually conventional story nets. But surprisingly, none of these omissions takes away anything from the book. On the contrary, the self-help format gives it liberties to introduce firsts that conventional forms don’t.
The protagonist (you) comes from an impoverished family which stays in rural Pakistan. The family moves to a city and faces the usual difficulties any immigrant poor family faces. Despite the economic hardships, the protagonist somehow manages to acquire an education owing to his vantage position in the order of his siblings none of whom manages to lay a foundation for a future in the city.
Romance wafts into this self help book as a girl enters the protagonist’s life. The first burst of romance doesn’t last for too long but their love survives the changing phases in their lives during which their ways cross several times and finally merge at the fag end of their lives. Expect the Pretty Girl, however, many things change in the protagonist’s life. He goes through several odd jobs and finally sets up a water-purifying business, a lucrative business to set up in rising Asia given that government-supplied water is not fit for consumption,. And his business rises, sometimes through a deal with an army official (this being Pakistan) and sometimes a bribe to a bureaucrat.
The story the book tells is not particularly new - the story of Asia, the divide between poverty and prosperity, how the poor always scramble as the rich have it easy so on - but how he tells it is significantly different. The book is critical of how fortunes are made and lost in Asia where you have to bribe your way up and a wrong move or a misplaced trust can cause your fall. Hamid has effectively used the self-help format of the book to buttress the book’s cynical character. At the beginning of every chapter he addresses the protagonist (or probably you, this being a self-help book) giving him ‘tongue in cheek’ advises about how he should negotiate various phases of his life on his way to becoming filthy rich in rising Asia.
However, the format gives an artificial and impersonal feel to the story. Hamid has loosely based it in Pakistan but has touted it as a story of Asia and Pakistan (terrorism, filth etc) is so different from so many parts of Asia that Hamid’s effort to pass it off as a story of Asia doesn’t come off. And, as if conscious of it, Hamid uses various ploys to remind the reader that it’s a story not of a part of the sub continent but the whole continent.