The title of this review, "This is a Stimulating Book to Upload to Your Brain," is how Karim Issar the first-person narrator of Kapitoil speaks: in an idiosyncratic techno-prose indicative of his computer programming background and his use of English as a second language. Teddy Wayne has created a marvelous voice in Karim, somewhat reminiscent of Alex Perchov's Ukrainian voice in Jonathan Safron Foer's Everything Is Illuminated. Wayne worked a few years editing essays written by foreign students, so he's had an opportunity to study their way of speaking. Karim's voice is the most entertaining part of the novel; yet the novel is much, much more than that.
Karim comes to New York from Qatar to help work on the Y2K problem for his company, Schrub Equities (possible a satire on Schwab Equities). The year is 1999. The book is broken into chapters that are entries in Karim's journal. Karim projects all of your typical nerdy qualities: social awkwardness, good with math, meticulous about technical details. He's even observant when native English speakers employ "non-optimal grammar," as he puts it, in Karim-esque prose. The end of each journal entry lists the American idioms Karim came across that day, along with what they mean. As a hobby, Karim works on a computer program he invented to take advantage of the oil futures market. The program turns into a hit with his professional superiors, and before Karim knows it he is a star in the New York office (which, by the way, happens to be located in the World Trade Center). A series of serendipitous events happen that land Karim the "cream of the cream" girls, money, power, a-la Forrest Gump. A potential serious love interest parallels the main plot.
At its deepest level, this book is about how technical disciplines such as math, science, or programming trump the inexact feelings of social relations, while at the same time how proper social discourse remains immune to the fallibility of logic inherent within these disciplines. As Karim navigates the complexities of social interaction, in both the business world and in his personal life, he grows as a person. Slowly he changes, even beginning to utilize his glossary of idioms, in his own speech. Slowly he turns away from his Muslim background and adopts some aspects of American culture. By the end of the book Karim must make a decision: He must decide if he wants to absorb himself completely into the greed of American life, with the help of his money-making program, or return to his roots.
In some ways this book is a satire on corporate America, circa 1999; in some ways this book is a satire about the differences between American culture and traditional Muslim culture. Mostly, however, the book is a satire about people who are not honest with themselves or honest about their personal strengths and weaknesses. Karim himself doesn't even always do everything correct according to his moral compass. One of my favorite pieces of dialogue was said twice. In both cases it occurred when Karim needed to make a decision between having sex and what he believed to be the more morally correct choice. Karim was constantly worried about (and I paraphrase) "my body defeating my brain." In the end, however, Karim's humbleness and honesty about his social skills, confidence about his analytic abilities, and honesty in his journal about his transgressions -- and there are many transgression, to his Muslim faith, to his love interests, etc. -- makes him the hero of the book.
Teddy Wayne's ability to come up with incredible dialogue, dialogue that can propel a book's plot, carve characters, etc., solidifies, in my mind at least, his writing ability, and I'm looking forward to his second book. My only complaint was that some of the characters did not benefit as well from the "gimmicky" dialogue, and came across as somewhat two-dimensional. Otherwise I would have given the book five stars.