An Uncertain Algorithm

Last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance Festival, Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public, is a cautionary documentary about the course of technological progress. The film follows delusional internet visionary Josh Harris staging elaborate productions, such as a web-cam-riddled underground world where he houses a group of New Yorkers in the months leading up to Y2K. Ten years on the message still resonates with our present anxieties since Harris’ predictions have come to startling fruition. In current works of cautionary art we see that technology’s biggest proponents are also the greatest of pessimists. These artists chronicle the history of progress—its breakthrough inventions, its disappointments and legacies—with a skeptical view towards the future.

Teddy Wayne’s debut novel, Kapitoil, is one such reflection that begs the reader to consider our uncertain transition into a new decade. Wayne takes us back to meditate on the sentiment and challenges of the end of the millennium—the impending economic collapse driven by the dotcom bubble, increasingly complex global market dynamics, and most poignantly, the way human relationships are manipulated within these contemporary stresses.

Wayne’s protagonist, Karim Isaar, arrives in New York towards the close of 1999, transferred from Doha, Qatar, to the headquarters of Schrub Equities. His plan is clear and grand: reap the financial gains of the booming technology market. Once within the walls of Schrub, Karim conceives an insidious financial program that employs complex algorithms to predict the impact of global events on the stock market earning the company unprecedented profit. While the program gains Karim the recognition and financial compensation that he seeks, the genius programmer is the antithesis to his American contemporaries, who schmooze and network and shoot from the hip, while Karim approaches even his closest human relationships with calculated logic. As he struggles to assimilate, Karim finds himself pulled from his cultural and religious edicts by the seductive promise of prosperity.

The first person narration highlights Karim’s difficulty with English, and—while at times removing the reader from deeper engagement with the prose—the linguistic simplicity lends likeability to the main character as he navigates the challenges thrown at him. Struggles of both cultural alienation and American cultural homogeneity are clearly a preoccupation for Wayne; however, he uses language as an instrument of subversion through subtle linguistic irony, which implicates the author as more satirist than dramatist in his tackling of these issues. The witty word-play in Kapitoil emerges as an author’s trait—in the form of a motif that carries throughout the novel, a list of contemporary English “word meanings” that Karim methodically records:

made my bitch = defeated = conquered = subjugated = dominated = enslaved

pre-game = drink alcohol in the apartment before external parties to reduce panicked feelings

workaholic = someone who works constantly to avoid the remainder of his life

These overt definitions documented through Karim’s forthright outsider perspective bring into question the vernacular that has now merged seamlessly with the American psyche. As this modern language dictionary progresses throughout the novel, illuminating the conflicts arising with Karim’s co-workers and love interests, Wayne comments on behavioral molding in the modern lifestyle—the power plays, the dating games, the socioeconomic incongruity, a feeling of alienation—all of which are  heightened within capitalized cities.

These moving personal stories carry the novel. The most interesting is the relationship that develops between Karim and Mr. Schrub. The founder of Schrub Equities is an all-around successful businessman, seasoned by experience and driven by the thrill of the game.  Though initially seduced by Shrub’s lifestyle of influence, Karim soon realizes his boss will go to any lengths to win. Underneath Schrub’s big-brother façade, however, is an anxiety shared with Karim: “One day,” Schrub admits, “you look at yourself and you don’t know how you got there.”

Karim is conflicted by pressing responsibilities back home in Qatar, where his father runs a modest grocery shop that is threatened by the expansion of larger franchise stores. Karim dismisses his father’s scorn at his new life—until he calls with the news that Karim’s younger sister has been hospitalized by a bomb explosion in a Qatar shopping mall. He hangs up the phone, only to be met by the following announcement on the Schrub monitor outside his Manhattan apartment window:

“Merry Xmas …BRONCOS VS LIONS 4:15PM. KICKOFF…MIX OF FREEZING DRIZZLE AND LIGHT SLEET THROUGH DAY…”

He watches the marquee “for several minutes but there was nothing about the bombing.” It is a transformative moment: Karim comes into moral conflict with the program that is quietly ticking away, exploiting the inequality that defines his home and cultural roots while making Schrub Equities and himself quickly rich. The program becomes the metaphorical centerpiece around which everything traverses as his struggle with an all-powerful boss, the new experience of sexual relations with women, and the questioning of his religious morals all come to an apex. Karim’s is a dichotomous existence—having escaped the frustrations of developing world cities he meets the flip side of the same in the developed world. “Sometimes you do not truly observe something until you study it in reverse,” he comments at the beginning of the novel. It only resonates much later when he stops looking through rose-colored glasses and confronts the true implications of his ambitions.

While I found myself at times conflicted between the grandness of the novel’s subject matter and the protagonist’s disarmingly simple worldview, Wayne’s meditation on the beginning of the internet boom is a timely reminder of the path we still follow, especially in the context of our latest ‘system imbalance’—this current great global recession.

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