Let’s get this straight, right off: Marx never wrote like this. Then again, Marx didn’t concern himself with architecture or sex or Corsica. But Viken Berberian does in “Das Kapital: A Novel of Love and Money Markets.”
The challenge of taking your title from an iconic treatise is that it can’t help but intimidate readers. Do you have to (re)read that old “Das Kapital” to get this one? Thankfully, no. The story focuses on two men, each a true believer in his own way, and the girl they both fall for. It’s snappy and romantic on top, theoretical down below.
Wayne, a wealthy Wall Street fund manager, is in futures, and maybe anti-futures. Falling somewhere between Gordon Gekko and Spock, he is predatory, soothed by numbers, conscience-free and just barely human enough to be smitten by Alix, an architecture student living in Marseille. She’s a beautiful cipher dating a Corsican. The Corsican, as he’s known, yearns for an uncorrupted world; his deepest emotions can be stirred by the bite of a red ant.
Berberian begins audaciously, with Wayne: “The surrounding landscape was a concentration of glass and steel, vertical gulags lost in the clouds below. Facing his electronic terminal, he felt like he was in the cockpit of a fighter jet, a creature of pure movement and speed.” Nervy to set him up as a jet among skyscrapers -- tasteless, even. But evoking the 9/11 attacks foreshadows the terrorism that factors into the plot.
Soon Wayne casually destroys the company the Corsican works for, and the latter takes matters in hand: “I leave for New York City tomorrow. I am supposed to meet him inside the MetLife Building, that icon of capitalism condensed; beacon of betrayal to us, symbol of prosperity to them.” The Corsican’s straight-outta Marx dialogue reads either funny or annoying.
Footnotes keep the book from getting too smart, both elucidating points in the text and poking fun at the use of footnotes. The jokes don’t stop there: Wayne orders avocado sandwiches that arrive, repeatedly, without avocado, sending him into outscale, profanity-laced rants.
The Corsican and Wayne form a dangerous alliance. Each woos Alix (a most precious commodity), alternating work on their plan with the pursuit of romance. But each remains superficial, and as a consequence the book’s satire is undermined by its lack of dramatic tension.
The whip-crack writing owes a debt to Don DeLillo, loaded as it is with naked dialogue, obliqueness and a penchant for repetition. Words, phrases cycle back until patterns emerge.
If only sharp prose and carefully crafted satire were enough. These characters are propelled by their roles in the historical dialectic instead of compelled by emotion. The story is empty at its center, like one of Wayne’s sandwiches. *