Viken Berberian’s second novel, Das Kapital, wryly lives up to its name. Like many economic treatises since Marx’s, it concerns the gently aging love triangle of capitalism, power, and labor. The story’s main character is Wayne, the wunderkind manager of a three-billiondollar hedge fund, who has honed his ability to anticipate when stocks will decline, profiting handsomely by betting against individual companies and national markets. Though Berberian layers Wayne’s story with references to the Situationist International, his book is less a novel of ideas than a series of cartoonish interactions between characters and the concepts that animate them.
Wayne is sleeping with Alix, an architecture student who is attempting to extricate herself from a relationship with a gentleman known to the reader simply as the Corsican. This mysterious former lumberjack and nature lover happens to be the terrorist for hire Wayne surreptitiously employs to blow up cathedrals, designer buildings, bridges, and other architectural hot spots around the globe. This allows “radical empiricist” Wayne to accelerate his fund’s profit from loss and destruction. In a further twist, the Corsican used to work at a lumber company Wayne helped bankrupt and has since “made a secret pact with nature to restore its honor.”
In its portrayal of the world of day trading and hedge funds that has come to represent capitalism in action, Das Kapital succeeds mainly in the novel-as-pinballmachine category: It hits key phrases (the Fibonacci sequence, Nassim Taleb, the VIX volatility index, arbitrage, and Monte Carlo simulations) that establish the author’s bona fides for writing about the subject. Wayne revels in making bombastic speeches about “exchange value” and “naked self-interest,” and more generally, there’s a lot of tough, crude talk in the trading room and screaming at underlings. But, alas, there’s little insight into why individuals (and traders) make the economic and personal decisions they do.
Then again, insight may not be what Berberian is after. His characters are caricatures who soliloquize and think in clichés. By the story’s comic end, Wayne and the Corsican have turned into their opposites, neatly displaying the emptiness at the cores of their respective philosophies. Profit-loving Wayne develops feelings and a love of nature; he no longer cares about “the pell-mell of commerce” and tosses his BlackBerry into a fountain. The Corsican, meanwhile, evolves from forest-dwelling woodchopper to leader of an army of urban terrorists, who discuss the organization’s overhead, cash reserves, and “success rate” and subject its bombings to “efficiency metrics.”
Perhaps the best way to read this novel is as a satire of ideologies and the people who inhabit them. But for most readers, the sheer quantity of glib passages throughout may prove defeating and could squash the book’s final drollery.