Set in 1999, Teddy Wayne’s first novel, Kapitoil, is narrated by an ambitious, mathematically minded programmer from Qatar named Karim Issar. Shortly after arriving in New York to help a large firm prepare for Y2K, Karim creates a successful programme to predict oil futures; from there, he soaks up Western culture, falls in love and confronts the city’s cannibalistic, capitalist mindset in the days leading up to 9/11.
As a reader, it’s easy to sidle up next to Karim. As the author, you seem very comfortable in the skin of someone with a very different background.
Though I was an English major in college, have been a writer and editor since then and haven’t taken a maths class since high school, I’m a little more mathematically inclined than that background might suggest. Karim and I share a fascination for calculations of how the world works numerically. In the first scene, he figures out the fuel efficiency per person for the aeroplane he’s riding on and how it compares to a car’s. That’s the sort of thing I often do, although anything beyond that is out of my purview.
Your novel sidesteps the sentimentality of most books that hedge close to 9/11. Especially given you’re a New Yorker, how did you avoid that?
The major strategy was not to write a 9/11 novel, by setting it in 1999. With a few exceptions, I think we’ve exhausted the conceits of these novels, which either restate the obvious or, worse, use 9/11 as a device to add dimension and weight to slight stories. So the nostalgia I had to avoid, instead, was assuming that the late ’90s were a halcyon time when we were innocent and prosperous. Our innocence was, in fact, closer to ignorance, and our prosperity was a castle built of sand and false premises. And we were stuck listening to ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’. No nostalgia for that.
What sort of feedback have you received from those business types who might strike you as Karim-esque?
I’m not sure how many Karim-esque business types are out there: humble, socially awkward, interested in business for its intellectual challenges more than moneymaking. I’d be more curious to hear from readers who are closer to his two male co-workers – one a brash shark-in-the-making, the other a self-loathing beta-male.
From your perspective, would you say estrangement – rather than assimilation – is the prevailing immigrant experience in America since 2001?
As a white native New Yorker, I hesitate to offer any assessments on the immigrant experience for any real person. But I’d guess that, as always, what matters most is where you’re from, both region and class. Another idea I was shooting for is to revise the immigrant narrative for the era of globalisation. Instead of a being a tired, poor member of the huddled masses in a classic rags-to-riches tale, which it resembles to some degree, Karim is a highly skilled foreigner who is far more likely to be recruited by a big company than I am.
Karim’s blend of business jargon and strangely lyrical similes about bubbles in Coke strikes us as accidental poetry. Any chance of you writing a poetry book?
I really doubt it. Although that would be fun. Garth! That was a haiku.
Kapitoil is published by Harper Perennial.
Great books about oil
Oil! by Upton Sinclair
The first major novel to tackle the oil industry head on, it was the inspiration behind the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood.
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Out this year, Ship Breaker is a post-apocalyptic novel set at a time when the human race has run out of oil. Prophetic?
Dune by Frank Herbert
One of the most influential sci-fi books ever written, Herbert’s masterpiece sees the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of a rare and valuable spice, dealing with a tumultuous ruler succession. A thinly disguised metaphor for fears around dependency on the Middle East during the Cold War.