Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil is a startlingly funny, intelligent and poignant pre-9/11 novel that one can only read with a post-9/11 sensibility. Set in a blissfully naïve 1999 Manhattan where Y2K is the impending crisis on the mind, Wayne’s debut is both a comic skewering of American capitalism and an honest account of a city—indeed, a way of life—that is about to change forever.
At the novel’s start, Karim, a computer programmer from Qatar, begins work at Schrub Equities, a faceless corporation housed, ominously, in the World Trade Center. Smart, ambitious and adherent to (but wary of) his traditional Muslim upbringing, Karim tries to remedy his fish-out-of-water status, attempting, with various degrees of success, to master the language, understand the culture and figure out his 20-something peers: crass and puffed-up Wall Street types whom Wayne captures in pitch-perfect satire. The book takes its title from a computer program Karim develops, which predicts oil futures by analyzing political news stories, and one that quickly proves lucrative for Schrub Equities. Suddenly, Karim is launched into the world of high-stakes business deals and private jet rides, all while still trying to find his place in the world and negotiating both his conflicted feelings about his family and his developing affections for his coworker, Rebecca.
Told entirely through diary entries, Kapitoil earns its humor, heart and personality from Karim’s stilted, jargon-inflected language that slowly improves over the course of the novel, mirroring his own integration into society. For instance, when a colleague tells him something is “Karim-esque,” he takes great pleasure in adding the suffix to his repertoire, to comic and endearing effect. At the end of each chapter, he dutifully records all new words, phrases and idioms (e.g., “pre game = drink alcohol in the apartment before external parties to reduce panicked feelings”; “tool = someone who is leveraged by others”). To some extent, these authorial stylings are Shteyngart or Safran Foer territory, but where other authors have used the device to poke fun at their characters, Wayne seems to employ it as a means to lambaste English itself. It’s clear the author has great affection for Karim, and consequently readers do too. With his clever prose and simultaneously romantic and skeptical viewpoint, Teddy Wayne is undoubtedly an exciting new voice on the scene—and Kapitoil is a book that is not to be missed.
Jillian Quint writes from Brooklyn, New York.