Kapitoil, By Teddy Wayne

Reality bytes for a city slicker
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The Independent Culture

Karim Isaar is a computer nerd from Qatar. He arrives at the Manhattan offices of investment behemoth Schrub Equities fresh from the Arabian peninsula. Karim's programming is exceptional, his social skills less so.

Inspired by the ordered randomness of a Jackson Pollock exhibition, he designs a programme that uses news articles to predict oil prices. It makes such staggering profits that Derek Schrub, the founder and CEO, begins to take a close interest in Karim. Meanwhile, he strikes up a tentative relationship with fellow-programmer Rebecca.

Karim is our narrator and he relies heavily upon the language of business and computing, with endearing personal flourishes. Despite being a practising Muslim, he enjoys a drink and soon takes to pre-marital sex. When he corrects a woman in a nightclub on the precise logical meaning of "random", he drives her away. But he manages to lose his virginity on another outing and his description of his climax is noteworthy: "It was as if my system crashed but in a delightful way".

Teddy Wayne manages to make comedy from Karim without lapsing into repetitive parody, Sacha Baron Cohen-style. If Karim is a figure of fun at the novel's start, from midway in we begin to root for him. He falls prey to mounting moral concerns, not related to his adventures in clubs and at parties. The novel's central irony is that, nerd or not, Karim's beliefs in upholding the family and trying to do good in the wider world are uncannily close to core American values. Unfortunately, it might be that the temptations of easy money are leading his hosts astray.

Kapitoil is set before 9/11, but its depiction of the reckless excess that lies behind our current debacle groups it with Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic and Jonathan Dee's The Privileges.

A nerd-narrated novel is a difficult feat to pull off, and Wayne adds an extra difficulty by choosing a nerd who has English for a second language. Mostly, Wayne rises to the challenge, though occasionally the results are uneven. Like his punctilious hero, he is adept in knowing which buttons to press: we're held in suspense by the stops and starts both of Karim's romance with Rebecca and his affair with filthy lucre. This energetic manipulation sometimes lacks subtlety, but makes reading Kapitoil an unusually enjoyable experience.