Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

March 7, 2011

Karim Issar, a computer programmer from Qatar, narrates this story via a journal. His journal, at least the part to which we have access, begins on October 3, 1999 describing his airplane ride from Qatar to New York. His seatmate, a pimply teen named Brian, asks about what Karim does. Karim explains that Schrub Equities has hired him to “help them prepare for the Y2K bug so their systems do not malfunction.” He started the journal as a way to improve his English and because “several financial magazines” he reads “advise recording a journal for self-actualization.” He also has two other reasons:

(1) I hypothesize that writing your thoughts is a way of deciphering precisely what you truly feel, and it is especially valuable if you have a problem, similar to how writing a computer program helps you decipher the solution to a real-world problem, and (2) recording my experiences is also integral to remembering precise ideas and moments from my time in the U.S. I have a robust memory for some details, but it is complex to continue acquiring data and archive them all, and even I now am forgetting some older memories, as if my brain is a hard drive and time is a magnet.

While it is never explicitly stated, passages like this strongly suggest that Karim has Asperger’s Syndrome or a mild case of autism. He is extremely poor at recognizing non-verbal cues and at handling social interactions generally. He is unusually logic-oriented and, therefore, has trouble understanding jokes. The abnormal neurology of Karim places Kapitoil in the tradition of novels such as Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Wray’s Lowboy, Hyland’s This is How, and other “neuronovels”, as Marco Roth dubbed them in an n+1 article. In the article, Roth quotes Lionel Trilling from 1949:

“A specter haunts our culture—it is that people will eventually be unable to say, ‘They fell in love and married,’ let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say ‘Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.’”

Karim’s descriptions tend to be very much like the latter. For instance, in describing a woman who flirted with him several months previously, Karim says:

Her face was highly symmetrical, and under her business suit her body had a pleasing shape, and she smelled like a garden.

During the course of the novel, Karim has some libidinal impulses that are reciprocated by his officemate Rebecca. His technical descriptions of his feelings for her and the miscommunications occasioned by gaps in his knowledge both of English (though he studies idioms and vocabulary regularly) and of human relationships provides a refreshing levity. In addition to the potential romance between Rebecca and Karim, Wayne develops several other themes.

Karim’s father is not happy that Karim has left the family business for the world of global markets and international finance. Where his father is suspicious of capitalism and the United States, Karim has Gekko-like* faith in markets to efficiently allocate resources. Their political disagreements are complicated by the fact that his father is a single-parent to Karim’s sister, Zahira. Karim’s mother elicited from Karim, while on her deathbed, a promise that he would always look after Zahira. Karim’s father currently allows Zahira to attend university, but is having some misgivings. Karim, of course, believes it is critical that Zahira obtain a university degree in her chosen field.

Meanwhile, Karim’s Y2K work at Schrub Equities is mundane. He is ambitious, so he develops on his own time a program to predict price changes in oil markets. He sends the first version to an unscrupulous co-worker, Jefferson, who offers to “help” him present it to someone in “quants” or the quantitative analysis side of the company. Jefferson, of course, submits the work as his own. Jefferson tells Karim that he was told that Schrub already has a similar but better program. “Better luck next time?” he e-mails. Karim is oblivious and, even after finding strong evidence that Jefferson took credit for his work, is unwilling to believe that Jefferson double-crossed him. Being unsuccessful and ambitious, he tries to improve the program which he names “Kapitoil”.

Wayne uses these strands to set up some conflicts between the Schrub Equities profit-seeking and Karim’s broader sense of responsibility, the responsibility to self versus family, and the way individuals are shaped by their choice of livelihood. Mr. Schrub confides to Karim at one point:

”It’s funny,” he said. “You act a certain way, and you think you’re an absolutist, but every day there are these little shifts. They’re so small you don’t even notice them. And one day you look at yourself and aren’t sure how you got there.”

I said, “That is usually how change occurs. It is like physical growth. You cannot detect it on a daily basis.”

“Like a physical growth,” he said, although I had merely said “physical growth” and did not include the indefinite article. “Exactly. Like a tumor.”

This is a “soft” neuronovel, under Marco Roth’s characterization, and it does “”load almost the entire burden of meaning and distinctiveness onto [its] protagonist[‘s] neurologically estranged perceptions of our world.” The result provides well-covered ideas with a sense of freshness. I felt at times, though, that Wayne did not entirely invest in Karim. He begins with a total faith in capitalism and the benefits of efficient markets, then shifts by the end to a more jaundiced view. Partly this is because of his treatment at the hands of the greedy, like Jefferson. There are unconvincing episodes too, however, such as when he learns “U.S. history” from The Grapes of Wrath, concluding that:

[T]here was no minimum wage in the time period of the novel, which causes problems for the workers on the free market.

I question whether a person as knowledgeable about economics and as logically oriented as Karim would draw this lesson from Steinbeck’s work. It felt to me like Karim was being pushed in a direction necessary for the author’s aims. This rough handling of the cast detracts from the overall effectiveness of the book. Message predominates over character and realism in the plot. This weakness creeps into other areas as well. The New York office of Schrub Equities is located on the 88th floor (Karim likes the symmetry of the number) of World Trade Center 1. This is at least the second book in the ToB that relies on the reader’s knowledge of and emotional response to 9/11 to provide a significant part of its power. I consider that a shortcoming.

I do not want to give the impression that I did not enjoy the book. I did. It is very readable, particularly if, like me, you tolerate well neurologically abnormal narrators. Karim’s unique way of looking at the world is handled well throughout the first half of the book. His preciousness begins to wear thin as message becomes more important, yet I was sufficiently invested in both the plot and Karim that I was eager to learn their outcomes. If you enjoy neuronovels, you might quite like this one.

Finally, Kapitoil does use an accurate chess analogy. Karim makes a point about why computer programs may make better financial analysts than humans, noting that computers are better at the brute force calculations used in much of chess. He does not leave his analogy there. Humans retained at the time some competitive advantage during the endgame if their computer-opponent was not permitted to access endgame databases. With only a few pieces on the board, humans are able to conceptualize a strategy rather than calculating the exceedingly large number of possible outcomes. At least at the time, computers still struggled in the endgame if they relied on the same algorithms they used to play the rest of the game.

The analogy and his point is important to a strand of the novel, specifically that logical analysis alone is not the optimum method of solving all human problems. Humans still have some advantages over calculators.

Kapitoil meets Freedom tomorrow in the Tournament of Books. The Reading Ape predicts that Freedom will advance. I would like to say otherwise, however, I would choose Freedom over Kapitoil were I the judge.

* [edited after posting: I originally wrote “Gecko-like faith” though, on reconsideration, I believe Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko makes a better analogy for my purposes than the cute lizard. In fact, I am unsure what sort of faith, if any, geckos have in free markets.]

[Update 2: Link fixed. Thanks, Sarah.]