In Kapitoil, Karim Issar, a lowly computer programmer from Qatar, lands on Wall Street in October, 1999, and soon writes a program that predicts oil futures with an algorithm that sifts and analyzes the language of news articles. As the earnest young man encounters masters of the universe, bottle-service night-clubbers, and liberal-arts grad Brooklynites, he narrates his journal entries in an idiosyncratic brand of English derived from financial jargon and business-speak. It’s at once a thought-provoking meditation on late capitalism, and poignant coming-of-age story. We caught up with the Kapitoil’s author Teddy Wayne, whose work has appeared in publications ranging from The New Yorker to McSweeney’s, to discuss office jargon, e-books, and nineties nostalgia
Did you write Kapitoil during the financial crisis? No; I started it in early 2006 and finished it in September, 2008. I’m not that clairvoyant, unfortunately.
The narrator Karim Issar’s language is filled with business and tech jargon. What was the inspiration behind it? I had a job after college editing business school application essays, and the majority of work was for applicants from Southeast Asia who had learned English through the language of finance. I thought it might be interesting to write from the perspective of a character who was so wrapped up in the language of capitalism that he spoke, wrote, and thought in it. I first decided that Karim’s English would be grammatically correct, so that the emphasis was on lyricism and inventiveness rather than humor; Borat and Jonathan Safran Foer had already cornered the market on butchered English for comedy, and a character with this sharply mathematical a mind would be sensitive to usage and the finer points of grammar. I also kept a running glossary of the substitutive words he used, and paid careful attention to when he improves his fluency. Eventually, I became fluent myself in Karim-ese, though the writing was still slow going.
How does the growth of e-books affect you as a debut writer? It’s an uneasy paradox: Amazon and e-books are gradually destroying bookstores, and with it some part of the literary culture, but at the same time, they level the playing field. It no longer matters as much if a chain bookstore orders a massive number of copies of your book and displays them on the front table if a reader can purchase it on Amazon or for the iPad. So, while I have a fondness for books as physical objects, if digitization means that as many “copies” of my novel exist as Tom Clancy’s latest, I’ll take the tradeoff.
Right. The corollary is someone like Lily Allen, who rose to prominence via MySpace, or bloggers who can now break out of anonymity. We’ll still have and need gatekeepers to screen and promote the content, but the democratization of writing is only a negative—and it’s a big negative—if you consider that it contributes to the overall dilution of literacy, so that books with twitpics of dogs in team uniforms outsell Don DeLillo. In fact, royalties for e-books may be slightly higher than they are for paperbacks (as they should be, because distribution costs essentially nothing), and since my book, as is the case for many young writers, has come out in paperback and not hardcover, it helps somewhat financially, too.
Speaking of Twitter, you set up an account in which you published your purported tweets from 1999, the year Kapitoil is set. Why? I’m much more nostalgic for the early ‘90s, when I came of age. One of the themes of the novel is how culturally empty the late ‘90s were, especially musically. Yet the aesthetics of indie rock and film were becoming mainstream by then and took off once Bush was elected. Repressive governments historically inspire good art.
What are you working on now? As a break from publicity and touring for Kapitoil, I’ve been working on a comedic screenplay, which has been an entertaining and natural extension of the Comedy Central series I helped create, The Worst Speeches of All Time, and from prose humor, which I’ve been writing for a while now. And for even more hilarity, I’m doing a weekly business column about media and marketing for the New York Times.