The new novel Kapitoil, written by a frequent contributor toMcSweeney’s and The Huffington Post, involves a Middle Eastern man who moves to New York City in the days before 9/11. Due to the setup and author Teddy Wayne’s pedigree, I expected irony and broad political generalizations in lieu of developed characters and heart. Thankfully, I was wrong on all counts.
Instead, Wayne’s first novel is a book ripe with beauty and potential. The first-person protagonist is Karim Issar, a completely lovable computer programmer who comes to New York from Qatar to help a faceless corporation, Schrub Industries, deal with the Y2K problem. Schrub is located on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center, and although 9/11 is never explicitly mentioned, it hangs in the air like a fog. As Schrub’s cubicle dwellers buttress their computer networks against a disaster that never comes, we know the fate that awaits them in the not-so-distant future, and this feeling of foreboding casts a sense of grim tension over the entire work. Their fear is misplaced; it’s not a technological, but a geopolitical disaster that will cap the century.
Karim is an analytical young go-getter eager to make a name for himself in the world of business. He doesn’t know much English however, and one of the chief acts of prose pyrotechnics in the book is the way his voice changes and develops over the course of the novel. An epistolary novel,Kapitoil is written as journal entries with vocab lists designed by Karim at the back of each chapter. It’s incredible to watch as Karim learns to write in the past tense around the one-third mark of the book and how American vernacular creeps into his voice so completely by its end. Contrast this sequence early in the book when Karim lands in New York—“We angle down to New York City, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan aggregate like tall flowers in a garden and the grids of orange lights look like LEDs on a circuit board”—with this observation of Central Park at novel’s end—“The horse slowed down and stopped as a large cluster of Asian tourists crossed the path in front of us… A small piece of bread sat on top of the snow like a topping on a cake with icing, and dozens of ants were aggregating around it. It again wasn’t the correct subject to be thinking about at the time, but it made me happy that such a small piece of food was sufficient for so many ants.”
The plot focuses on a computer program Karim creates called Kapitoil that scans news articles for terrorist acts in the Middle East and predicts whether or not they should buy or sell oil futures here in America. Wayne writes, “So I begin by employing a boosting algorithm that weights specific words, which I perform by reverse-correlation, so that I see what days the oil prices moved most sharply and then determine what keywords ignite their movement. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are heavily weighted, of course, and so are ‘war’ and ‘attack’ and ‘gunfire’ and similar terms.” Kapitoil ends up making Schrub Industries a huge amount of money and puts him into direct contact with the head of the company, Mr. Schrub himself, which brings us to one of the book’s few weaknesses: Wayne’s, at times, over-reliance on character types. Mr. Schrub comes off as a well-intentioned character at first, but quickly becomes the snobbish oaf we all expect. His wife is the typical bleeding-heart liberal married to a rich capitalist, and their sons are outright jerks who boss people around, drink beer, and play X-Box. For all the great pains Wayne goes through to build Karim into a well-rounded, unique individual, he does not make many attempts to flesh out the larger cast.
However, the same can not be said for Karim’s love interest, Rebecca, a downtrodden Brooklyn hipster who ends up falling for Karim, even though he literally does not understand the meaning of irony or postmodernism. Their courtship is one of the nice surprises of the book. Wayne writes, “Initially I disliked how she accurately classified me as a nerd, but then I valued how she did not mind calling herself one and therefore I was careless that I was a nerd as well.” It’s filled with sweet moments unexpected in a novel whose central tension involves whether or not a Middle Eastern businessman will use his revolutionary program to exploit terrorist attacks for stock market money or to predict the evolution of diseases. That tension works and will be the major draw for most readers, but its conclusion is relatively expected. What has the capacity to surprise is Karim’s relationship with Rebecca which is both tender and painful, and at times, recalls the sweetness of first love like another well-remembered debut, Philip Roth’sGoodbye, Columbus.
Wayne imbues his protagonist with curiosity, humor, and most of all, an overwhelming sense of humanity. Although the book has more than its share of clichés, it makes up for that failing with an interesting plot, a warm relationship at the book’s center, and a flawlessly developed first-person voice. Karim Issar is a character readers will remember, and readers had better prepare themselves to remember the name of Teddy Wayne as well. It’s one they’ll be hearing again and again in the months following Kapitoil’s release.
Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil is out from Harper Perennial.