Tash Aw’s estimable third novel, “Five Star Billionaire,” takes its title from a fictional self-help book, and its mantras function as chapter titles: “Move to where the money is”; “Reinvent yourself”; “Cultivate an urbane, humorous personality.” Some of these mantras are touching, like “Know when to cut your losses.”
The novel’s setting is Shanghai, circa right now. Aw’s five central characters are mostly insecure strivers from the outlands. They’re trying to shake their hick accents, their poor postures and their cheap shoes and to make it, by any means necessary, in the big, sleek city.
One of these characters, an amoral spa receptionist named Phoebe, shows up for a date at a sophisticated Western restaurant after making a list of things to remember. These include “how to use the cutlery, what to do with the little baskets of bread that arrived before the meal, how to deal with olives.” Soon, Phoebe “did not even need to look in her handbag for the piece of paper on which she had written: 1. Soup (+ bread). 2. Fish (flat knife). 3. Meat. 4. Cheese. 5. Dessert. 6. Coffee.”
Aw has an eye for status distinctions. There is some Edith Wharton, as well as some Tom Wolfe, in how he invests awareness of these distinctions with moral and financial peril. “Five Star Billionaire” was recently placed on the long list for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award, and one of its pleasures is purely sociological. It’s a busy yet sophisticated portrait of life in one of the most populous cities on earth.
The primary characters, besides Phoebe, are Gary, a Justin Bieber-like pop singer whose career derails; Yinghui, a free spirit who abandons art for commerce; Justin, the troubled scion of a wealthy family; and Walter, the five-star billionaire himself. Aw weaves these lives together gently, like a man plaiting hair.
“Five Star Billionaire” is a meditation, at heart, on impermanence. The New China never stands still; to pause for even a moment is to be left behind. “Every village, every city, everything is changing,” a young woman says. “It’s as if we are possessed by a spirit – like in a strange horror film.”
Rapacious capitalism has overthrown the old rules. Wealth brings respect as well as the late-night heartburn of moral queasiness. All those fancy terms beloved by financiers, Walter thinks, “like takeovers, selling short, asset stripping – are these not rich people’s terms for bullying, gambling, and cheating?”
Similarly, Justin thinks to himself about those who would stand in the way of his ruthless family’s projects, “It was awkward when someone acted out of principle.”
Aw’s array of characters lets him examine what we used to think of as the American dream, transplanted to China, from multiple angles, some sardonic. “Corruption is quite comforting, really,” one character declares. “I mean, it suits us, suits the Asian temperament. Westerners aren’t comfortable with it, not just because they have stricter rules in place, but because something in their nature prevents them from appreciating it.”
Aw is a patient writer, and an elegant one. His supple yet unshowy prose can resemble Kazuo Ishiguro’s. The drawback to the author’s measured attack is that “Five Star Billionaire” is a long book that simmers without ever coming to a boil.