"We angle down to New York City, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan aggregate like tall flowers in a garden and the grids of orange lights look like LEDs on a circuit board." Thus observes Karim Issar in his curious jargon, as his plane descends over New York on October 1, 1999. Karim is a young computer programmer from Doha, Qatar, assigned to work at Shrub Equities' New York headquarters on Y2K debugging. Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil (Harper Perennial, 2010) is unique among recent American novels in offering such trenchant social commentary without making an explicit point of it, and you won't be able to help falling in love with the endearing Karim. Karim ends up writing a highly successful program--which profits off oil futures--that involves him at the highest echelons of Wall Street. He also falls in love with his officemate Rebecca Goldman, and we root deeply for him to overcome the powers allied against this romance. In retrospect, we stumbled blindly through the millennial moment; Kapitoil offers us the best look yet at the cultural erosion we ought to have been concerned with then. I praised Kapitoil very highly in a review, and recently followed up with Wayne to satisfy some of my curiosities about the novel.
Shivani: The most distinctive thing about Kapitoil is Karim's language--a hybrid of business/mathematical jargon with a peculiar literal-mindedness. Was this the starting point for the novel?
Wayne: Yes, coming up with Karim's voice was where I began. I had a job editing business-school application essays after college, and most of the applicants were from Southeast Asia and had learned English via financial jargon. I started from there, added technological/mathematical/scientific vocabulary, ensured Karim's grammar was impeccable (such a logical mind wouldn't brook any grammatical errors), and eventually came upon a voice I hoped combined the sterile rationalism of that language with accessibility and some poetry. His character developed from there, as did a storyline.
Shivani: Are there ways in which Kapitoil has succeeded in accomplishing your aesthetic goals beyond the point which you rationally understood? In other words, since publication, have you become aware of complexities in interpretation that weren't necessarily obvious to you when you finished the book?
Wayne: The reviews I've seen have all been illuminating--critics have been spending space on the ideas in the book, and inevitably they'll point out some things I hadn't been fully conscious of. But the most gratifying part has been when readers have told me lines or moments that have stuck with them.
Shivani: You seem relatively sympathetic to Wall Street. I like this attitude, because it's such a refreshing change from the knee-jerk pseudo-populism among the literati that we're seeing these days. I imagine the financial crisis must have already started unfolding while you were finishing the book. Was it more difficult to keep an open mind toward Wall Street under such conditions?
Wayne: No more difficult than before. It's too reductive to paint everyone in finance as the embodiment of greed. We don't know why everyone's there; maybe they have crippling college loans to pay off, or a family to support, or are genuinely engaged by their work. That said, there certainly are more mammon-centric people there than in, say, nonprofits or public-school teaching, and it would be naïve not to address that. Even for the minor characters who are the most "Wall Street," I tried to draw them as real human beings with frailties and desires.
Shivani: You set this novel in the pre-9/11 period--the waning months of 1999, in fact--yet it is the most profound fictional commentary on the condition of post-9/11 America that I have yet read. It is the paradigmatic 9/11 novel without ever mentioning 9/11. How did you accomplish this?
Wayne: That's kind of you to say, though I could tick off several novels--not to mention a spate of nonfiction books--that provide profound commentary on post-9/11 America in ways I didn't even attempt. Maybe what appeals to some people is that it can't possibly be too on-the-nose or polemical about 9/11 because it simply can't be brought up in the narrative. So there's some dramatic irony for the reader, because we know what will happen, and the story can be extrapolated to the post-9/11 era, but the characters themselves can never be weighed down by the gravity of it.
Shivani: What were some of the things you were hoping to accomplish with such a compressed time frame for the novel?
Wayne: I know your review pointed out that the three months Karim spends in New York suggests the epic immigrant narrative is no longer necessary, which may not be something I was thinking about specifically in reference to the time span, but is what I was going for overall: an immigrant novel for the age of globalization, in which a foreigner coming to America to send money back home may now be here on a three-month work visa, work a high-skill white-collar job in a corner office, and make far more money than his literary creator.
Shivani: I feel some empathy for Karim's officemates, Jefferson and Dan, even some sympathy for Karim's boss, Derek Shrub, and an enormous amount of affection for his love interest, Rebecca. Yet without Karim's interaction with them, they would each be impoverished, lessened, diminished. Karim is a very dominating figure, in that sense, more than he realizes; a very Romantic hero.
Wayne: You always hope the secondary and tertiary characters stand on their own, but they're ultimately there to serve as foils or complements to the protagonist--otherwise they'd get their own story. Since the book is filtered so heavily through Karim's voice and observations, though, it's hard not to view them through his lens.
Shivani: Did you find yourself making false starts during the writing of the novel, where the comedy turned into farce, or took turns that you didn't think were productive?
Wayne: Yes--as someone who writes a lot of satire for different publications, the temptation to fall into farce is always there, but unless a book is structured from the start to be farcical, I find occasional forays into it unhelpful; they're distracting and lead to inconsistency and undercut the emotional vulnerability. If I found myself going for easy laughs--namely with Karim butchering the language--I either cut it or tried to find the humor in the characters more than in my authorial intrusion.
Shivani: How long did it take you to write the novel, and can you tell us how you went about structuring it? Were there big parts of it that ended up being removed?
Wayne: About three years, all told. I knew there would be three months in the narrative, each comprising one "act," and I write with a semi-detailed outline in which the main plot points are sketched out, but I give myself room within them to move around. My first draft had a foolhardy, thriller-ish subplot appended to the second half. It wasn't very good, and it detracted from the character development.
Shivani: International trade and mobility are premised on the idea that there are no real zero-sum games, that we can each gain a little yet benefit others too. In the last decade, we seem to have lost sight of this main premise of liberal-capitalism altogether. Was discomfort with this idea the spur for your novel?
Wayne: It was a spur, but not the only one; if I conceived of it too much as a fictional exploration of the failures of neoliberalism, it would be a novel no one would want to read. I thought of it as a book about a character coming to terms with a number of problems--his inability to connect with others and articulate his own emotions, his frosty relationship with his father, his grief over his mother's death, his protectiveness of his sister--who also has a highly sympathetic attitude toward capitalism that gets tested and makes him reevaluate these relationships.
Shivani: The scenes between Rebecca and Karim, as he becomes something of a postmodern humanist in short order (via Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan), are some of the most affecting in the novel. It's almost unheard of to write a love story these days with such a straight face. Yet you managed to pull it off beautifully.
Wayne: Thanks again, though, once more, I think there have been a number of good modern love stories. One factor that may make it more palatable and not so cloying is that Karim is experiencing these feelings and situations for the first time, yet reacts in a way that not even an average fifteen-year-old in a coming-of-age story would, because he's not solely an innocent--he's nearly a machine, and the novel is the story of his deepening resistance to that automatonlike sensibility.
Shivani: The danger in writing about the prelapsarian period of the late 1990s--just before all the calamities started to strike--is false nostalgia: false because all the signs of imminent decline and collapse were there already. Did you struggle with that?
Wayne: I had a few moments in early drafts where readers felt I was signposting the future; I decided to cut anything that was too premonitory. 1999 may have been a heady time for the economy, but it was such a culturally empty moment--Clinton was a lame duck who had squandered whatever political capital he had left because of the Lewinsky scandal; the Internet was making money only for speculators, not for companies; pop music and TV were mostly awful--that I wasn't worried about getting too nostalgic, in the way that someone writing about 1950s Americana might.
Shivani: An older writer might not have been able to accept the completeness of our civilizational loss in such a forthright manner. Do you agree?
Wayne: You could also argue an older writer would have a more measured sense of history which I lack. So, no, I wouldn't say my relative youthfulness is an advantage in any way except that I'm a bit closer to the age of Karim and Rebecca, and whatever I share with them is fresher in my mind than it will be in a decade (though, again, I may not have the distanced perspective now).
Shivani: Could you tell us something about the publication history of this novel? Did you immediately find a sympathetic editor?
Wayne: That thriller-ish subplot I alluded to earlier caused problems in the first round of submissions my agent sent out. While no one pinpointed that as the precise sticking point, they didn't go for it, either, and a few editors ended up criticizing Karim's voice, too. I briefly contemplated writing it in a more normative voice or even in the third person. The writer Joshua Henkin read it and got me to see how the subplot was flawed. I did away with it, revised the second half to focus more on character and less on plot, and in the second round of submissions we had a much more enthusiastic response. I would have been happy with any of the editors and houses who made offers, and am very pleased to have ended up with Jeanette Perez at Harper Perennial. Not only is she a superbly attentive reader who improved the novel substantially (she's a definite exception to the complaint that editors don't do any actual editing anymore), but she's as warm as anyone you could hope to work with.
Shivani: Do you think there is a prejudice against humorous novels in the reviewing/critical community, as somehow not good enough to comment on the most significant issues in our society?
Wayne: Maybe a little, though not in the same way as with the Oscars, for instance, where comedies don't have a shot at winning Best Picture. Fortunately, there's a long tradition of humorous literature serving as the sharpest of meditations on society, so I don't think novels suffer quite as badly. Although, in looking back on the list of National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners just now, novels with humor--any humor--are in the distinct minority.
Shivani: Fear has conquered everything in our civilization--it's corroding every value we've held sacred. Kapitoil seems to have been written from a very Olympian stance dismissing the substance of our fears.
Wayne: It's easy for me to say, not having been personally affected by any acts of terrorism. If someone I knew had died in the World Trade Center or another postmillennial terrorist attack, I might well feel differently.
Shivani: In significant ways Kapitoil is also a comment on the utter datedness of the vast majority of ethnic/minority/immigrant fiction being published in America today. Was that on your mind as you wrote the novel?
Wayne: As a white, native-born American, I wouldn't venture to say I've done anything special in this regard. Perhaps because I have no firsthand knowledge of what an immigrant or member of a minority group really experiences, I ended up avoiding some of the conventional tropes, if only out of ignorance and fear that I wouldn't do it justice. Because it's set before 9/11, Karim's being Muslim doesn't lead to a fraction of the xenophobia it would otherwise provoke, which might be refreshing to some readers and which was on my mind. Though I have no deeply personal stake in it, it bothered me that just about every Muslim male in fiction or the movies the past decade has either been a terrorist or persecuted victim.
Shivani: One of the things that held the book together structurally for me was Karim playing a series of games and sports, or trying to understand them as others played them, throughout the novel. All the while, he's performing his part in the most important of games for himself, yet he doesn't quite understand his role in this game, until almost the very end. How can his mind be so clear about trivial games yet so dense about the life-and-death one he's participating in?
Wayne: I would submit that games are more important to modern American society--culturally, economically, politically--than any other society in history. Kapitoil deals with a range of games, from the global and serious (the stock market, terrorism, financial negotiation) to the local and lightweight (board and video games, fantasy baseball, dating rituals). Karim observes them as part of the hypercompetitive nature of America and Americans, and is drawn into them, too, but he lacks the killer instinct necessary to succeed in them. He recognizes that, though neoliberalism would like to deny it, they're always zero-sum games, that every winner requires a losing counterpart. But when he's implicated, creating a program for gain that exploits the loss of others, he attempts to repress his culpability.
Shivani: If there's such a thing as a new global novel emerging, I would say that it is defined by not holding true to the anxieties of one particular nation or group of people. It addresses the global anxiety all of us partake in, and that anxiety therefore seems more manageable in the long run. Parochial anxieties are very dangerous--they have little room to run into except dead-ends and hard walls. Have you noticed other important new fiction writers mining this same philosophical vein?
Wayne: I'm not versed in the full complement of contemporary writers to make a definitive statement about this, but it does look like American writers are turning outward much more than they did in the nineties, and that foreign-born writers who have been Americanized are accelerating this expansion and no longer feel the need to write standard "immigrant" fiction (Aleksandar Hemon comes to mind). Then again, one of the classic American road novels, Lolita, was written by a foreigner, so maybe it's nothing new.
Shivani: As a young author who has published such a successful book, you must have strategies to remain suitably Karim-esque yourself?
Wayne: Writing a novel isn't curing cancer. I labor under no delusions that sitting in a room by oneself, imagining people and documenting their made-up existence, is a particularly noble calling. If it entertains a few people and maybe changes them in some small way, that's about as much as you can hope for, and renders the enterprise worthwhile and a little less selfish.
Also, I'm moving to Qatar.