The Short Version: Karim moves to New York from Qatar to do some Y2K programming for a major multi-national corporation. He develops a new program while there and skyrockets to success – but the hurdles of American culture are confusing and even as he begins to acclimate and become more “American”, he wonders about what it is he’s losing. In the end, he has to weigh everything he’s gained against the man he is and wants to be – and make a decision that’ll change his life either way.
The Review: I think the most wonderful thing about being a totally subjective book reviewer is that I can focus on certain intangibles about the experience of reading. For example: the joy that comes from reading a really good – not earth-shaking, not life-changing, just really good – book after having read a book that you truly disliked. Case in point: Kapitoil.
I admit, I was worried. And I’ve held off on reading this book for quite some time (it was a part of the 2011 Tournament of Books, where it lost in the first round to Freedom – a decision I don’t fully agree with) because of the opening sentence: “The Atlantic elongates below us like an infinite violet carpet.” This, coupled with the “immigrant comes to New York” storyline, kept me away from this book until, on a random impulse I don’t quite understand, I added it at the last minute to a stack of books from B&N. This morning, still feeling blerg about The Accidental and being entirely adrift literarily, I grabbed this by chance and said “well, it’s due time and I want something about New York.”
What a pleasure, then, to read a perfectly well-constructed and engaging (while not being demanding) novel on this sunny Upper East Side Sunday. I read the entire novel today – I wasn’t exactly expecting to but between the East River and Central Park and the multitude of train trips downtown, I was finished before dinnertime. And therein lies the simplicity of this novel’s appeal: it is a quick and wonderful read, able to be tossed off in a day but also still be a rewarding literary experience.
It’s a curious novel – as Wayne explains in the P.S. interview in the back, it’s a “pre-9/11 novel”. Part of the other reason I was scared to read this novel was the lingering shadow of that god-awful Netherland – and The Boston Globe’s top-lined review inside the cover linking the two novelists did not help. But this book isn’t about 9/11 or New York after. Except that it is: it’s the idea of “observ[ing] something [by] study[ing] it in reverse.” That’s a quote from the book that I’ve butchered to make fit, I’m afraid, but credit where credit’s due.
Anyway, it comes from the idea behind Karim’s (super awesome) computer program which he calls “Kapitoil” and can predict the short-term fluctuations in the oil market based on what’s happening in the news. And the company is headquartered in the WTC, so that looms over everything. Plus the idea of the oil market fluctuating based on unrest in the Middle East, the fact that Karim is from Qatar and is nearly deported at one point… there’s just a lot of foreshadowing, I guess. But it’s all foreshadowing in that way that you can only understand it from afterwards. This book would not be as good, I don’t think, in 1999/2000 (when it’s set). It would still be good… but the echoes of history that we understand now wouldn’t add those layers of meaning. Even non-9/11 related issues like the housing bubble and the Obama Presidency influence this book because they’ve existed and we can see the foreshadowings in Wayne’s novel, whether he intended them or not. And I must say, that’s rather impressive.
The story itself is a simple one, with shadows of Gatsby (which is started but not finished by our hero) and Wall Street. Karim is a fantastic character, definitely “on the spectrum” but not autistic. I’d say Asperger’s, to be honest – and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I drew Karim in my mind as quite similar to Abed on Community. I actually think Danny Pudi would be great as Karim, but that’s another topic of conversation. He’s brilliant but he’s an outsider because of the language barrier and the culture clash. His relationship that develops over the course of the novel with Rebecca (I’d say SPOILERS but I think it’s pretty predictable from early on) is a wonderful rom-com-esque thawing of a person. It’s how he develops the most over the course of the novel and the non-ending is also quite lovely, if sad. In fact, rather like a film, the book is self-contained. There’s no curiosity about the before or the after. It is exactly what it is.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I don’t think it’s life-changing or world-altering – but it was simply a damn good read. I enjoyed it as it sped by, like taking the scenic route in a convertible. It’s smart, funny, and even a little inspiring. An incredibly assured debut novel and a smart look at the way we were before and how, really, not all that much has changed. It’s worth your time, I promise.