By Teddy Wayne
Harper Perennial ($13.99, 293 pp.)
Karim Issar is a gifted programmer from Doha, Qatar. It is 1999, and all hands are on deck in New York to patch shortsighted computer programs scheduled to implode when the century rolls over. Y2K is our apocalypse, and thank God there is enough immigrant talent in the world to save our bacon. Schrub Equities hires Karim to fix its programs and insure that their profitable investment juggernaut of the 90’s doesn’t skip a beat. After days of head down code juggling in their World Trade Center cubicles, the slaves of New York are released to the techno cocktail and cocaine clubs while their bosses go birding in Connecticut mansions. Oh, those were the good old days.
In a sense “Kapitoil” is a pre-9/11 novel where author Teddy Wayne assumes we all know what is coming, and so his Islamic hero’s assimilation into a bustling New York of Yankee games, limos, mosques, downtown clubs, MOMA, the F train to Brooklyn, Zegna suits, Central Park, and pizza-by-the-slice reflects a world that is no longer with us. Today Karim probably couldn’t even get a visa to visit.
Curious, Analytical, Awkward
Teddy Wayne (if the name sounds like he should be on TV, it is because he is – making videos for Comedy Central) has created a wonderful character in the gentle, curious, analytical, and awkward Karim Issar. His first novel is told in the first person diary of Karim with a voice that perfectly captures the perspective of someone new to our language and culture but committed to learning every piece of it through experience and study. Each diary entry even ends with a glossary of newly learned English words and expressions. It is Karim’s voice and Wayne’s play with language which distinguish “Kapitoil” from the long legacy of “Stranger in a Strange Land” books before it.
Schrub Equities provides Karim with a furnished doorman apartment and a WTC 88th floor cubicle in a pod with three other Y2K programmers. Two of them are single guys whose fantasy baseball banter bewilders him, and the other, a single woman named Rebecca, bewilders him because…well, because she is a single working woman, an oddity in Qatar. So he listens and emails and programs; but he is too good at programming to fill his days with rote Y2K fixes, and instead creates an algorithm to predict the hourly world price of oil based on key word news searches for acts of violence and terror, especially in the Middle East. Investing phantom money, he beta runs this program he calls Kapitoil for a week and generates a 30% monthly return – a potential goldmine for Schrub.
When Karim shares Kapitoil with his bosses at Schrub, they begin to invest real money quietly in the oil markets… and begin to make a killing. The plot turns on Karim’s sudden high profile as he is promoted, bumped big time in salary, given a private corner office, and taken under wing by Mr. Schrub himself with invitations to his Racquet Club, Yankee box, charity dinners, and Connecticut estate. His pod mates envy his American Dream success – except Rebecca, who dreams of leaving Wall Street to become a teacher and has grown fond of Karim for his innocence and kindness rather than his new found wealth. The real story of “Kapitoil” is the love story between Rebecca and Karim.
Romance 101, Arabian Style
Rebecca initiates the relationship with a shared coffee here and there. Karim’s awkwardness charms her. Gradually, they do more things together discovering common interests. This is Romance 101, except in the way Wayne makes it fresh through Karim’s language and analytical attempt to understand his feelings. “I spent Monday brainstorming our date…it was more difficult than programming in many ways because in programming if you can’t predict results, you can test out new variables and use trial and error to arrive at a solution, but with people you typically have one opportunity and their motivations and reactions are more difficult to understand, especially with females.” Karim even builds a “pros and cons” list to choose a restaurant.
They have their ups and downs, misinterpreting each other now and then or arguing over little things. Karim however analyzes every nuance. “I hypothesized that she was still upset and my predicted outcomes weren’t optimistic, so I decided to wait for her to stabilize and let her initiate contact with me when she was ready.” When they finally find themselves in bed, even then his analysis and observation never stop, “I paid attention to which actions produced no effect and which yielded a net gain, as in a boosting algorithm, and I utilized the strong ones in variable patterns so they wouldn’t become predictable, but after a period of time I merely let myself enjoy our actions, even if I wasn’t the cream of the cream partner.” Who wouldn’t want such an attentive lover?
Ultimately Karim is uncomfortable with his innovative Kapitoil being used only to make profits on global violence, and he rewrites the program to predict and prevent world disease. He falls from favor at Schrub and loses his work visa. Now comfortably attached to Rebecca, he is left with no simple solution to stay with her. They both know the relationship will have to end, but both are better because of it. As Karim says, “I was most Karim-esque around Rebecca, and to boot, I was even learning to be Rebecca-esque, which was possibly what relationships were about more than they were merely about compromise.”
“Kapitoil” is not just a novel focused on what we have lost in the aftermath of 9/11 nor is it a diatribe on the excesses of Wall Street. It is a story of young people finding their ways and each other in a world that still crosses borders and cultures, despite a global paranoid shift to prevent it. Wayne tells the story in the voice of one good man who learns how shared languages and compassion bind us together regardless of political and religious efforts to keep us apart. Long after you have forgotten his plot, you will remember Wayne’s remarkable creation of Karim Issar.