by Teddy Wayne
Reviewed by Robin Cody
Huck Finn tells a story. As far as he knows, he is drifting down the river with a primitive runaway slave. Before too many pages, though, a sharp reader sees that Jim is the more complicated and compassionate character on the raft.
It's an old literary trick and a good one. The narrator doesn't get it. Mark Twain, of course, got it. He filtered some of the least admirable social conventions of the American South through an admiring but unreliable narrator, letting the reader figure it out. In much the same way, young Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird, has little idea of the racism she so clearly reports. And Holden Caulfield, the disaffected brat of The Catcher in the Rye, is a more engaging storyteller than the all-knowing reporter he thinks himself to be.
Ken Kesey said his early drafts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest just weren't working when Randle P. McMurphy told the story. Then Kesey (inspired by chemical experiments himself) let Chief Bromden, a Chronic, tell the story through a recurring fog. Eureka!
I'm a slow learner. It took me years of rejection and rewriting to convert Wade, in Ricochet River, from a critical observer to an unquestioning doofus. When I did, I thought I had invented something. Instead, I'd only discovered another reason to appreciate the twisted narrators in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and Don DeLillo's End Zone, and Joanna Rose's Little Miss Strange. Nabokov's Lolita knocks us all out.
What got me thinking again about this is a first novel by New Yorker Teddy Wayne. In his Kapitoil, an earnest young technical wizard arrives on Wall Street from Qatar to help a big bank gear up for Y2K. Out of curiosity, not boredom, he writes an algorithm to accurately predict the market movement of crude oil futures.
That's the plot, not what the book is about. The narrator, Karim Issar, is a rare and immensely appealing bundle of brainpower and cluelessness. He's a programmer. Karim finds mathematical "patterns" that let him interpret and connect -- in ways I'd have never thought of -- a Jackson Pollock painting, Bob Dylan lyrics and the New York Stock Exchange. He combines impeccable English grammar and a growing vocabulary with maladroit usage and misapplied American idiom. He's humorless, socially awkward and unknowingly funny. Females? A profound mystery. Here is Karim leading up to a torrid (for him) love scene:
Initially I disliked how she accurately classified me as a nerd, but then I valued how she did not mind calling herself one and therefore I was careless that I was a nerd as well.
The author, in an afterword to the book, says that any novel narrated in the first person should be, to some degree, idiosyncratic. Sure. Teddy Wayne gets it. A smart insider, he lets a wide-eyed outsider deliver this fresh take on American finance and culture. Kapitoil
is just plain fun to read.