In his debut novel Kapitoil, Teddy Wayne follows the astonishing and short-lived career of Karim Issar, a self-taught computer programmer from Qatar who arrives in Turn-of-the-Millennium Manhattan to work on a Y2K debugging project for an equity firm. The main plot conceit is that Karim has to study things like idiomatic language and social protocol in New York because he’s a foreigner—and that this unusual perceptiveness allows him to “predict events that other people consider random accidents.” Using this talent, Karim designs a program called Kapitoil that analyzes the media coverage of terrorist attacks in order to predict crude oil futures with frightening accuracy. He realizes that Kapitoil leverages political violence for financial gain but moves ahead with the program anyway, and as a result becomes a rising star at his firm.
Karim convinces himself that his actions are free of moral consequence—“this violence will happen with or without my program,” he says—and it’s out of this assumption that the driving conflict of the novel derives. The story is imbued with a pre-9/11 ignorance that Karim is caught up in. So while he’s able to believe that his profiting from the deaths of others cannot make that faraway suffering worse, we readers are skeptical. He works in a World Trade Center office, after all, and we know what’s going to happen in the coming years. Nonetheless, it’s that Karim attempts to find a balance between morality and profitability, to straddle both sides of his ethical predicament, that gives Kapitoil relevancy.
Much of the first half of the book is used to engage him in the self-indulgent pleasure-seeking that his Muslim upbringing rallied against. We see Karim getting drunk in nightclubs and hooking up with fast woman. More or less, he begins to resemble the two coworkers who lead him on these misadventures. Jefferson and Dan are the kinds of Ugly Americans who are easy to parody, and much of the novel’s fun is at their expense. It’s only later that Karim really reconsiders the new path his life has taken, when he falls in love with his one sensible coworker, Rebecca, and begins to better understand his role in the world.
Most of Wayne’s previous work is under the banner of satire and farce, with numerous credits in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, McSweeney’s, and on Comedy Central, so the lampoons are expected and expertly performed. But he also shows a sure hand in depicting the sincere musings of Karim, an earnest character who identifies throughout the book with Tom Joad, because like Karim, Joad “attempts to provide for his family and has strong values, and he has an intriguing way of speaking to boot.” Channeled through his first-person narration, the writing is heartfelt and genuine in its humor. As Rebecca tells him: “Most people here, their conversations are intellectualized middle-school sarcasm. They’re just trying to prove how intelligent or cool they are. You’re not like that.”
Combined with his status as an outsider, Karim’s guilelessness allows him to observe American culture with limited bias. No remark is forced coming from him because, as a programmer, he’s hardwired to observe deeply and note conclusions—an organic premise for the narration that plays well in the book. And most importantly, when Karim struggles over the moral ambiguity of the program he’s created, his authenticity allows for a more open exploration of the issue at hand. When he convinces himself to proceed with Kapitoil, it isn’t as a cover for underlying greed but an extension of a healthy ambition to better the lives of his sister and father.
Of course, there’s an imbalance in the system that doesn’t allow honest pursuits like this to actually happen. This is a world of limited resources, of bloodshed and tough decisions. The novel seems to be telling us that no one can just run a computer program and blindly profit from its calculations. There are real consequences to everything, especially when it comes to making money.
Karim struggles to admit this to himself throughout the book and it isn’t until his little sister is a bystander in a terrorist attack back home in Qatar that Karim is finally forced into seeing the predatory nature of his own actions—when he personally profits from violence that injures the beloved he’s charged with caring for. In the end, Kapitoil boils down to Karim’s interior conflict of family, nationality, and religion playing against romance, profit, and hedonism. And because of the type of character Karim is, there really isn’t much doubt which side will win out.
The principal disappointment of Kapitoil is that its flat secondary characters aren’t able to challenge Karim—besides Rebecca, his coworkers are incurable cads who stumble into an endless string of faux pas, even failing to wash their hands after using the bathroom—and they leave Karim two-dimensional in important ways. In fact, not even his billionaire boss proves to be much of an obstacle, and most of the Americans he meets are self-deluded and provincial despite living in cosmopolitan New York. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the predatory nature of American capitalism is the target of satire here, and while Kapitoil doesn’t disappoint in this aspect, there’s often the sense that it’s a fixed fight. The targets are too easy. The betrayal, the conflict, the revelation—it’s all in Karim and his thought processes, rather than being wrung from the plot. His chief fault as a character is that he’s too successful, that he can dictate his own trajectory, and this is something that can cause the plot to wear thin at times.
This is largely a novel of voice, however, and it’s the steady cadence of Karim’s algorithmic narration that makes Kapitoil worthwhile. Teddy Wayne is an author of many gifts—notably his smooth, effortless prose—and he’s written a timely, self-assured book that offers its reader many rewards.