Afterthoughts: Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

In a Nutshell: A very readable novel made all the more enjoyable by the presence of a wonderfully crafted main character. If you think this novel is all about corporations and oil then think again. It’s so much more than that. Highly recommended!

*****

Welcome dear reader to my final afterthoughts for Kapitoil. But before I go on and tell you what I thought about this novel, I should tell you something about it. I do cover this in more depth in my forethoughts post for Kapitoil so I invite you to pop along and read that, but for those of you in a rush who just need a brief summary:

Kapitoil follows the exploits of Qatari financial wizard and software programmer, Karim Issar as he relocates to New York to assist his employer Schaub Equities, in combating against the Y2K bug which is due to hit in three months. It is not long before Karim develops a software application that looks to be of real value to the company. It’s a piece of software that Karim christens ‘Kapitoil’, and it’s able to make solid revenue by predicting the future price of oil. It’s not long before the ‘higher ups’ begin to get interested in Karim’s creation.

Now, from the outset I want to allay any fears that Kapitoil is nothing more than a dull ‘yawnathon’ based around American corporations and business jargon. It’s nothing of the sort! Although there are episodes when the narrative does turn to more boring aspects such as business talk, software engineering, number crunching and stock market predictions etc. (well the main character Karim Issar is a geeky computer whizz, after all), most of this novel is about one man trying to make sense of the oddities of New York life, while also trying to make himself fit in. It’s more of an exploration of how someone gets to grips with an alien environment, and Teddy Wayne plays out this exploration incredibly well, using a character who is every bit as memorable as any you are likely to find, and with a storyline that exalts that character to the max.

When I penned my forethoughts for Kapitoil, one of my biggest wishes – aside from hoping that this novel didn’t turn out to be a boring tale of American corporations and Wall Street – was that the main character would turn out to be as quirky a character as Odell Deefus in Torsten Krol’s Callisto, or dare I dream given this novel’s New York flavour, as wholly memorable as J. D. Salinger’s, Holden Caulfield. Well, I’m happy to say that my wishes (and dreams) have been fulfilled because Kapitoil turned out to be everything that I had hoped it would be, and more.

And the main reason Kapitoil turns out so well, is of course because the main character lives up to my expectations. Karim Issar is without a doubt the absolute triumph of this novel, and I defy anyone not to become instantly attracted to him. And what makes the main character so attractive? Quite simply he’s one of the most lovable, charming and charismatic characters out there in fiction world, but perhaps not in the way that most people would think.

In the first place it’s Karim’s distinctive ‘voice’ and use of vocabulary that makes him so endearing. And as Kapitoil is presented in the form of a personal journal – Karim’s own personal journal – the reader is continually exposed to the main character’s unique vocabulary; a vocabulary that another character in the novel refers to as, Karim-esque. How best to describe Karim-esque? Well the bulk of Karim’s understanding of the English language comes from his exposure to computers and ‘business speak’ in his native Qatar. And so every time that Karim communicates there’s a distinct element of formality and ‘geek jargon’ to his words, and it’s accompanied by a strong will to always remain grammatically correct. An example:

We find similar concepts humorous, although she produces jokes at a greater and more successful rate. Business manuals explain how valuable it is to have a sense of humor, so I am studying how others produce jokes, such as making a statement that is clearly the reverse of what you truly mean and using a tone of voice that indicates the reversal. But it is not a natural response for me, minus sometimes with Zahira, and I am unskilled at intentionally adjusting my voice.

Going back briefly to the fact that Kapitoil is presented to the reader in the form of a journal, I’d like to say that I’m glad that Wayne choose to use this unusual format, because it really works. Not only does it keep the entire novel Karim-esque (very important), but it also allows for the novel to be personalised in favour of the main character even further. At the end of each journal entry (and typically relating to it), Karim records words/phrases that he’s learned along the way (mainly slang word/phrases), and he appends these entries with his own definition. It’s all very entertaining and it adds even more in shaping Karim into the wholly, well-rounded character that he is. Here’s an example entry from Karim’s lexicon:

you was robbed = usage of incorrect second-person to indicate an unsound transaction
shit-shower-shave = consecutive actions a man performs before a nightclub

Because of the very analytical way in which his mind works, Karim’s way of figuring things out also brings a certain charm to his character. Karim approaches every situation in a thoughtful and logical way – kind of like a Qatari version of Mr. Spock – and he often comes up with sensible and remarkable results. In fact in many ways Karim’s logic acts as kind of a ‘balancer’ for his naivety, and this becomes especially important to the character as the story unfolds. I can’t really say any more than that without spoiling the story, but I will say that fans of Star Trek probably won’t be disappointed :).

Finally, warmth for Karim comes from the way in which he deals with intimacy and relationships. In the first instance it’s the close relationship that he shares with his family, and in particular his sister, Zahari, that makes the heart glow. It’s clear how much love Karim has for his sister from the way that he speaks to her (or from the way that he speaks about her when he’s not speaking to her), and it is this love for his sister that becomes something of a driving force for the character.

The love shown between Karim and Zahari is unconditional and uncomplicated – as any bond between siblings should be – but it provides a nice juxtaposition for an intimate bond that begins to form between Karim and a work colleague, because this relationship is anything but uncomplicated. And it is the way in which Karim deals with this relationship, and the doubts and uncertainty that surround it (the doubts mainly rising from Karim’s religious beliefs), that provide the most heartwarming episodes in Kapitoil, and make the novel so much more than a simple boardroom drama.

Of course all of this talk about Karim Issar makes it look like there’s nothing of substance to Kapitoil, other than its main character. That’s not true. Aside from the novel introducing us to some other great characters (look out for Barron Wright, Dan and Jefferson, Rebecca and the indomitable Mr Schrub) Kapitoil also gives us something of a satisfactory (although nowhere near exhaustive) tour around the streets and parks of New York City (a real bonus for anyone with an obsession for anything Big Apple i.e. me :)).

The reader is also given something of a lesson in the business ethics of large American corporations – something else I said in my forethoughts that I hoped would be touched upon in Kapitoil. I’m happy to see though that this aspect is explored without the novel being bogging down by it.

So all in all then a really enjoyable novel that gives more reading satisfaction than one may first think. Thanks to Kapitoil I now have a new character to add to my list of favourites, and a new author to keep a close future eye on. I suggest that you’ll think the same as me after you’ve read Kapitoil.

Rating: ★★★★☆

UK

Duckworth Publishers | July 2010 | £8.99 | PAPERBACK | 304 PP | ISBN: 9780715638941

US

Harper Perennial | April 2010 | $13.99 | PAPERBACK | 320 PP | ISBN: 9780061873218

:: What others have said about Kapitoil::

  • “The beauty of Kapitoil is that it tackles broad and serious themes with humor and an eye for detail.” Dave Sowders, Houston Chronicle.
  • “[Teddy Wayne] has written a timely, self-assured book that offers its reader many rewards.”Theodore Wheeler, The Millions.
  • “Kapitoil cuts through our cultural moment as sharply as Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop’’ or “A Handful of Dust’’ did for their time”Anis Shivani, The Boston Globe.
About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).

Comments

  1. stujallen (Twitter: stujallen)
    says:

    seems like a great read rob ,great review all the best stu

  2. Amy (Twitter: amckiereads)
    says:

    I’m glad this was everything you thought it would be! I have to say, this book has now moved up on my wish list!

  3. Great review Rob. You’ve uncovered another must read!

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Then my job here is done!
      Seriously though Colin, it’s way beter than it looks i.e. a dull corporate yarn.
      Warmest
      Rob