• March 8, 2011

    Opening Round

  • Jonathan Franzen


    Teddy Wayne

  • Judged by

    Sarah Manguso


Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil’s most appealing quality is its pacing—even Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom, said so last year in The Daily Beast: “Though the storytelling is conventional, it is satisfyingly so.” Throughout his first novel, Wayne divulges the information of his plot at a rate perfectly calibrated to entertain.

If Karim Issar, Kapitoil’s Qatari narrator, isn’t identified as clinically autistic, he’s at least what we now call “on the spectrum”; he’s a software programmer who has half-learned English from financial magazines and writes a diary because “I have a robust memory for some details, but it is complex to continue acquiring data and archive them all, and even I now am forgetting some older memories, as if my brain is a hard drive and time is a magnet.”

The book begins during Karim’s plane trip to New York, where he’ll work as a software developer for Schrub Equities. Composed wholly of written diary entries, the tale of his adventures depicts the moral quandary of the corporate employee. In both speech and writing, Karim tends to misuse corporate-speak outside the corporate milieu; I counted 24 recurring terms. But his fluency improves cumulatively as the book progresses; in fact each diary entry includes a list of vocabulary words used in that entry’s reported dialogue, and future entries record Karim studiously attempting to use some of his newly learned words.

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To sum up: The book uses the emotional conceit of an apparently autistic narrator, the formal conceit of the diary form, the lexical conceit of a narrator with limited fluency, the second lexical conceit of consistent usage errors, and the narrative conceit of cumulative fluency. That’s five conceits.

I wouldn’t strike down a novel for employing conceits, but without them Kapitoil is left with its characters: one male coworker who is always a jerk while the other is always kind; a female coworker who is always moody; Karim’s mother, a dead saint; Karim’s friend the cabbie, behind whose rough demeanor is a heart of gold, and Karim’s sister, his ideal woman, their relationship forever untainted by sex.

Kapitoil is about a young man’s discovery of New York, and at times it reads like a young man’s rush to imitate his older brothers. Among them are Joshua Ferris and Ed Park, who more vividly portray the contemporary office setting as a theater of the absurd; Jonathan Safran Foer and Gary Shteyngart, whose nonnative narrators ruin their English more unexpectedly and hilariously; and most of all, Mark Haddon. The 15-year-old protagonist of Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties,” dodging the word “autism” as Karim does while managing sufficiently to suggest it. Though Haddon’s protagonist is the younger of the two, he is forced to make a choice that requires a life-altering sacrifice, while Karim is allowed at the end of Kapitoil to return to the perfect moral clarity of childhood.

Set in America’s suburban Midwest, Freedom follows the moral development of its two protagonists, Patty and Walter Berglund, through late adolescence and into middle age. Walter commands much of the book’s close third-person perspective; Patty’s diaries, written perversely in her own close third-person, provide two long interruptions. Other chapters belong to minor characters.

The book depicts various types of suburban failures. “Like so many people who become politicians, [Patty’s mother] was not a whole person,” Walter muses. But neither is Patty a whole person, nor her children, nor her husband. Every character lacks something—Walter settles for a disinterested wife; Patty possesses no great love, human or otherwise; Walter’s best friend serially betrays those he loves most; Patty’s sister remains delusionally convinced her art career precludes adult development; and so on. With increasing freedom from responsibility, the characters become more prone to self-pity and more basically miserable: “There was a more general freedom that [Patty] could see was killing her but she was nonetheless unable to let go of.” On the other hand, the characters’ commitments often, but not always, improve their lives.

Against this background of comfortable misery Walter acts out his tragic hero’s quest to save an endangered species of songbird.

No one is exempt from the narrators’ relentless perception. Walter’s best friend “was more of a showman then than he came to be later, when it seemed clear that he was never going to be a star and so it was better to be an anti-star.” His daughter-in-law “was like an imaginary friend who happened to be visible.” Patty’s sisters “were too eccentric and/or entitled-feeling to sustain a long-tem relationship, and still accepting parental subsidies while struggling to achieve an artistic success that they were made to believe was their special destiny.”

It isn’t merely out of cruelty that the narrators state things as they are; Franzen has them refute the world’s lies as a kindness to his readers… and to his characters, for with these cruel judgments he prepares them for their absolution.

Postmodernism seems to have let the blood out of half of the bad contemporary American novels, and sentiment masquerades as depth of feeling in the other half—in a naughty moment, Patty and Walter’s son refers to the latter sort of book’s reliance on “descriptions of rooms and plantings.” Franzen gets away with that crack, though, for what Freedom attempts is more ambitious than mere sentiment or mere intellection. It asks us to empathize with its lily-white characters, despite their Volvos and organic gardens and upper-body workouts, despite their chosen confinement in such banal surroundings. And since the book manages to render suburban St. Paul a viable setting for the full range of human emotional experience, I felt its characters’ pains and joys. With firm control of its dense and rigorous sentences, Freedom hits all its marks. Despite erratic pacing and an endpoint that seems somewhat arbitrary—why not 300 more pages, or 300 less?—the book satisfies its worthy ambitions.

Freedom’s final disclosure is more devastating than Kapitoil’s, and not just because it uses almost twice as many pages to achieve its effect. It is more devastating because Kapitoil focuses on a lightly sketched adolescent who returns to his lightly sketched father, while Freedom focuses on two fully human adults who, despite their history of betrayals, return to each other. When Patty and Walter drive away from the lake house, they complete the book’s convincing depiction of a mature marriage—one that survives serious conflicts and requires serious mercies. It isn’t nostalgia for Walter’s affair that broke my heart; it’s Patty’s forgiveness, and Walter’s forgiveness of her own betrayal, and the reminder that such forgiveness is possible.


Sarah Manguso’s most recent books include The Two Kinds of Decay and Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape. Honors for her writing include a Hodder Fellowship, the Rome Prize, and residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo. Her next book, The Guardians, a prose elegy, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Lionel Shriver interviewed me onstage at the Southbank Centre in London; Gary Shteyngart and I sat through a few faculty meetings together at Columbia.”