Teddy Wayne: Kapitoil
This novel has been called the best 9/11 novel though 9/11 does not occur till after the events of the novel. It was praised by Jonathan Franzen. It is a very funny and very clever novel about US capitalism and some of the issues that led up to the 9/11 events. Its skill is not just in showing the foibles of US finance and US capitalism, which it does very well, but to show them from the perspective of a foreigner. The hero/narrator is Karim Issar, a Qatari national, who works for a US investment bank called Schrub. Given that s(c)hrub could well be seen as a synonym for Bush (whose own energy company was called Arbusto, i.e. the Spanish for bush), I assume that this is Wayne’s little joke. Karim works for Schrub in Doha but, as he is an expert on Y2K issues and the year is 1999, he is sent over to the New York HQ of Schrub to help out on these issues. Karim is also an expert on computer viruses and a good programmer, both of which skills he will use in the book.
When he arrives in New York, Karim speaks competent English but struggles somewhat with US idioms. He often takes them literally but gradually learns them. The book is given in the form of a journal he keeps and, at the end of each journal entry, he appends a glossary of the idioms he has learned and their meaning. Karim is a very logical man and sees everything logically, so he fails to grasp the use of sarcasm (or, as US uses would (incorrectly) call it, irony) and US humour. However he does have a clear sense of grammar and is often bemused by the misuse of grammar (adjectives used as adverbs, data used as a singular noun and so on). He also struggles with US culture, in particular the relationship between the sexes and sports. All of this is grist to Wayne’s mill and is very funny, particularly seeing Karim’s take on some aspects of US culture that Westerners tend to take for granted.
However, the key part of this novel is Kapitoil. Karim has worked out that there is a correlation between news reporting, particularly though not exclusively reporting on terrorism and other political acts, and the rise in oil prices. He develops a computer programme that will spot the use of keywords in the online press and thereby determine the short-term change in oil prices. Schrub can exploit this information to make a lot of money. He persuades a senior Schrub employee to adopt this programme (and is surprised to be given $300,000 to play with to test the programme). After a few glitches, the programme seems to work well and he is moved out of the Y2K group to his own office. He is gradually wooed by Derek Schrub, CEO and founder of Schrub, who takes him to the World Series and invites him to his house. Meanwhile, his cultural appreciation of the US includes dating one of his colleagues, a Jewish woman.
Wayne is eager to write a pre-9/11, 9/11 novel, showing the cultural issues between the US and the Arab World. The good guys are not only Karim and his Jewish girlfriend, Rebecca, but also the African-American chauffeur and his family. This tokenism may be well be the weakest part of the novel. But he does show the ruthlessness of the financial world (though the ruthlessness tends to be just basic capitalism, with a bit of muscle) and the shallowness of the young US men, both Karim’s colleagues and Derek Schrub’s sons. But it is a very clever novel and very funny and its unusual point of view make it very well worthwhile.
First published 2010 by Harper Perennial