Tash Aw’s third novel, Five Star Billionaire, made the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker prize but wasn’t shortlisted. A case, then, of nearly but not quite. And that same epithet – nearly but not quite – turns out to be an apt way of summing up the novel as a whole.
Set in contemporary Shanghai, Five Star Billionaire follows the (mis)fortunes of several characters, all of whom are Malaysian immigrants to the city. There’s Phoebe, the simple factory girl with big dreams who arrives in Shanghai to discover the job she was promised does not exist. Justin is the adopted son who rises to the top of the family real estate business, only to find that business falling around him as he overextends his reach in Shanghai. Yinghui is a former student activist (all fairtrade coffee and Che Guevara t-shirts) turned successful businesswoman. And then there’s Jason, X-factor-type-talent-show-winner-turned-superstar whose public downfall (via Youtube) stands as a critique of contemporary celebrity culture: “Last week millions of teenagers aspired to live his celebrity lifestyle; today he is a cautionary tale of the excesses of modern society”.
Above them all stands Walter Chao, the titular Five Star Billionaire. Extracts from his self-help manual, “Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire”, provide chapter titles (“Move to Where the Money Is”, “Never Lapse into Despair or Apathy”, “Always Rebound After Each Failure”) and fill in biographical detail. The intention is, presumably, to satirise the genre (Phoebe is particularly susceptible to the book’s shallow teachings) but it’s played with slightly too straight a bat, and is in any case such a soft target, that it raises the odd smile rather than deep insights.
It would be perfectly possible to read Five Star Billionaire as an exploration of the new, twenty-first century China. Undoubtedly there is something of the modernisation (or is that Westernisation?) of China in, for example, Phoebe’s efforts to find a man, all dating websites, figure-hugging dresses and provocatively bare shoulders. But Shanghai has long been an anomaly within China, an international city where East and West meet or at least co-habit uneasily, and certainly in this novel the aspiration and alienation, the meteoric successes and crashing falls, the Blackberrys and internet cafés and Macchiatos, could just as easily speak to citizens of London or New York or Sydney. That is, Five Star Billionaire makes most sense as an exploration of the modern experience of cosmopolitanism and the increasingly disconnected lives we live in this most connected of worlds. From Phoebe’s online dating to the “unthinking numbness” Gary experiences whilst trawling through internet porn, from the “Power Yoga” sessions squeezed three times a week into Yinghui’s business schedule to Justin’s permanent state of work-induced exhaustion, Aw presents us with characters whose veneer of success quickly wears off to reveal a kind of inner-vacuity which seems to characterise much of modern life wherever in the world you happen to come from.
And that, perhaps, is what happens when reading Five Star Billionaire. At first, the reader is seduced by the exotic location, the colourful characters, and the busy, successful lives these characters appear to lead. Beneath that veneer however is a rather tawdry tale of grasping aspiration and bitter failure, a familiar story of haves and have- nots, set in a shallow world where success comes at a depressing price (‘I must improve my appearance’ writes Phoebe at one point, in her “Journal of Her Secret Self”. “I must dare to dress like a slut”. “I must exercise my body, to be fat is not acceptable”). And yet, for all that the novel has much to say about the contemporary life , somehow it doesn’t quite go the distance – characters and ideas alike are interesting but also underdeveloped. Aw’s novel is a good and enjoyable read no doubt, but also something of a missed opportunity. A case, then, of nearly but not quite.