Matthew Love catches up with the New Yorker who might well have penned the most interesting novel yet about how the economic bubble burst
Set in 1999, Teddy Wayne’s debut 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 prep 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. Because Wayne regularly contributes humour and journalism to magazines such as The New Yorker, it makes sense that he captures the city with compelling and sometimes humorous detail. What’s surprising is how well he integrates those details into a broader fictional narrative – one with significant emotional heft. 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. Which of his features served as the strongest point of access for you? 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 local 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. Also, while I’ve mostly published satirical pieces in the past and my default mode in the world tends toward the ironic, underneath that facade is something closer to the earnest sensitivity Karim exhibits and which… Sorry, I just started weeping tenderly at a picture of a kitten with a baby. Where were we?
Your novel sidesteps the sentimentality contained in a number of books that hedge close to 9/11, implicitly or explicitly. Especially given you’re a New Yorker, how did you avoid becoming elegiac? 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 – New Yorkers felt anxious after September 11; Muslims were, and still are, persecuted – or, worse, predatorily 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.
Given the satiric pieces you’ve contributed to publications such as Esquire and The New Yorker, the subtlety of the humour in Kapitoil is a turn. Was this a natural extension of the narrative or did you have to sit on your broader comic impulses? ‘Sit on my broader comic impulses’? That sounds dirty. And unsubtle. But yes, I find comedy writing a different beast from writing humorous fiction. Some people are describing Kapitoil as a satire, which is fine, though I find satirical fiction means hyperbolic scenarios, characters not meant to be read as human but as ideas, and prose filled with zingers. It usually wears thin for me after 50 pages. On the other hand, there’s a brand of milquetoast humour in fiction that settles for gentle, wry observation but never produces any gut laughter. My aim in Kapitoil was humour that lay between these two poles, as epitomized by the madcap high jinks of Ernest Goes to Camp and the urbane wit of Ernest Goes to Jail. The resting spot? The sublime Ernest Goes to Africa.
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; the best non-fiction take I’ve read on the 21st-century Muslim experience is Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. 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 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 me as a kind of accidental poetry – something like Donald Rumsfeld or Jewel might create. Any chance of a poetry book? I really doubt it. Although that would be fun. Garth! That was a haiku. Kapitoil is available in all good bookshops now.