Nerd nar­ra­tor makes for en­joy­able com­edy

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - BOOKS -

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 fel­low­pro­gram­mer 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 Co­hen­style. 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.

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. This en­er­getic ma­nip­u­la­tion some­times lacks sub­tlety, but makes read­ing Kapi­toil an un­usu­ally en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence. – The In­de­pen­dent

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