We noticed this novel on its release last year, but lagged in getting around to actually reading it. Still, this is a good moment to catch up with it if you're looking for summer reading.
Often the best observers of a given society and culture are those who are new to it. In Kapitoil, the newcomer is Karin Issar, a Qatari programmer sent to Manhattan for three months at the end of 1999 to help remediate the Y2K bug for his employer, Schrub Equities.
One day, while he's working in his 'pod', he is "struck by lightning" with an idea for an algorithm that could use normally disregarded correlations in news reports to predict oil futures. After a few tests, he tells his higher-up he's onto something that will reliably make money — perhaps a few percentage points per day. This is when he learns that Schrub Equities is in trouble after losing a very big financial bet. Suddenly, as the creator of technology that can save the company, Issar is important enough to be invited to the expensive Connecticut home of Schrub himself. He names the program Kapitoil, and has a decision to make: expand and give away the algorithm to benefit humanity by solving other problems, or take enormous sums of money and enjoy the good life in New York?
All of us who work with and around technology have known someone sort of like Issar. He is very serious about life, work and religion, and as a result never quite fits in with those around him, for whom sex, drink and drugs are all casual choices. On his days off — at least until he discvoers a kindred spirit in a female workmate — he visits museums and ponders. But one of Issar's most serious interests is learning English, to which end he carries a voice-activated recorder in his pocket at all times. At the end of each day, he studies the recordings, updates the diary he is keeping as he navigates American corporate and social life, and notes the new idioms he has learned (which appear, with definitions, at the end of each day's chapter). As his knowledge improves, he uses these idioms — always getting their meaning right but not always their context.
In fact, it's Issar's use of language that's the most intriguing element of this book: it's correct but not right. That is, although every meaning is correct, Issar's is not the voice of a native English speaker. It's clear that he has learned much of the English he already knows in the context of mathematics, science and programming. And so he is "stimulated" when he learns something new; his body "vibrates" in the cold, his skills "enhance" with experience and he "reroutes" his brain.
As fascinating as the book is, I would love to read a review of this book written by a Qatari programmer. Is Issar a Harvard graduate's well-researched conception of a foreigner, or does he ring real bells back in his home country? There's no way I can tell. But he's a wonderful character.
Kapitoil By Teddy Wayne Duckworth 304 pages ISBN: 9780715638941 Price: £8.99