- Oil Abstractions
Kapitoil's narrator and protagonist, Karim Issar, thinks and speaks in computer programming algorithms and the English of international business. Set in the fall of 1999, the novel opens with Karim on an airplane, travelling from his native Qatar to New York City, where he will work on the Y2K bug for a financial firm, Schrub Equities. Immediately, it becomes clear that Karim's English reflects the world in which Kapitoil takes place, a world where high finance and computer programming are ubiquitous markers of access to the wealth promised by globalization. Next to Karim on the airplane is an "American teenager" who "is plugged into earphones and recreates with a video game simulation of an airplane flight." The teenager strikes up a conversation with Karim and immediately recognizes the name "Schrub Equities." He quickly dismisses Karim as less than a "real programmer" and returns to his flight simulator with the comment, "So that's why you're in business class..... Only the serious businessmen fly in first."
From this initial exchange between Karim and the American teenager onwards, Kapitoil almost nostalgically depicts the U.S. still under the spell of the vision of globalization popular in the 1990s. The novel takes place during a time when the U.S. could still believably project the promise of upward mobility to many, when office workers and teenagers alike still had confidence in the meritocracy of the free market, and when computer programming and high finance were the keys to understanding the networked world. Moreover, this was a time when an American teenager seated next to a Muslim on an international flight registers no anxiety but instead offers an occasion for the Qatari narrator to experience first hand the teen's preference for the virtual over the actual. Kapitoil returns to tropes of postmodernism—Karim first glimpses New York City from the airplane and notes that "the grids of orange lights look like LEDs on a circuit board"— only to then present its main character with a choice between the glitzy world of high finance, in retrospect working towards a massive crisis in the decade to come, and a world where one can understand that "People cannot always be quantified." The novel employs the familiar terrain of the postmodern novel, only to gesture to what kind of a worldview might succeed it.
Oil plays a central but abstract role in Karim's rise to the top at Scrub Equities. Brought to the U.S. to work for only three months, Karim develops a program that he calls Kapitoil that generates incredible profits by predicting the rise and fall of crude oil prices. The program is inspired by the Jackson Pollock paintings that Karim sees at the Museum of Modern Art. At first uninterested in Pollock, Karim realizes that he has an affinity with the abstract expressionist: "I see some quotations by Pollock about his paintings, such as: 'I don't use the accident—'cause I deny the accident.' And I reevaluate that possibly Pollock's paintings have more value, because he has a philosophy similar to mine, which is that life is ultimately predictable." Karim's Kapitoil program runs differently than its counterparts: "Everyone else who writes programs to predict the stock market concentrates on the most central variables and incorporates a few minor ones. But what if I utilize variables that no one observes because they seem tangential, and I utilize exclusively these tangential variables?"
The way that Wayne structures the novel—as a series of journal entries over the course of Karim's three-month stay in New York, with new vocabulary words and colloquial expressions at the end of each entry—makes it clear that the text is about the relation of the center to the margin at a time when those relations are eroding. Juxtaposed with Karim's move to the center of global finance is the novel's dramatization of how it might be possible to see the world as all margin, with no center, as Karim and Pollock both...