- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2007

In “Das Kapital,” one of Viken Berberian’s characters calls time “the only truly scarce commodity.” Hold the book sideways, and it appears the author agrees: “Das Kapital” ends on page 175, and it is at once a romance, a thriller, a satire and a piece of science writing.

But Mr. Berberian’s latest wastes even the few hours it requires. There’s no character development, no suspense, little humor and only the occasional, incredibly awkward educational tidbit. The author simply tried to accomplish too much in too little space.

The tale focuses on three characters. Wayne works at Empiricus Kapital, a New York financial organization that bets against the market — when stocks go down, Empiricus does well.

Empiricus helps bankrupt the Bustaci Freres Fibre Company, a papermaker on the Mediterranean island Corsica. On losing his job, “The Corsican,” a tree-chopper for the company and, ironically, a radical environmentalist, decides to pursue terrorism. He has some ties to the Situationist International, a left-wing group with roots in Marxism (thus the book’s title, cribbed from the classic Marx work).

The Corsican has Alix, an architecture student in Marseille, France, strike up an e-mail conversation with Wayne. The Corsican warns Alix (whom he’s sleeping with) to meet with Wayne in person only once, but she disobeys, and gradually Alix and Wayne fall in love. The Corsican travels to meet Wayne as well, and Wayne employs The Corsican — if a terrorist attacks a certain company’s assets, Wayne can make money betting against that company’s stock. The Corsican can use his fees to finance further operations.

Does it work as a love story? Alix ends her relationship with The Corisican out of dislike, not because she’s dedicated to Wayne. There’s something to be said for Wayne’s evolution away from cold, hard moneymaking and toward love, but Mr. Berberian doesn’t spend enough time on it to make it seem heartfelt. On page 170, no one cares if Alix and Wayne are still together a couple page turns later.

As a thriller? Readers occasionally see the results of terrorism — Alix writes Wayne about how a building collapsed, and how she suspects it wasn’t an accident — but there’s no sense of tension or imminent violence. The characters don’t struggle with their deeds, and there’s never an edge-of-the-seat climax where an attack may or may not succeed.

What about satire? Mr. Berberian takes greed to whole new levels with Wayne, poking fun at the world of finance, but the exaggeration provides no insight and the book lacks a single laugh-out-loud moment.

As science writing, “Das Kapital” is downright bizarre. Mr. Berberian haphazardly throws in concepts that dehumanize, and only tangentially relate to, the text.

For example, when Wayne sees a woman he finds attractive:

“Blood rushed to his brain’s pleasure center. Electrical currents danced through a bundle of neurons about the size and shape of a peanut. Fortunately for the woman, Wayne’s restless mind drifted back to the stock market and his seat of reason, located in the brain’s frontal cortex, reverted to a more modest set of expectations.*”

Sexy!

If that’s not annoying enough, the author sprinkles in random and completely unnecessary footnotes. The above quote draws on “Bloomberg, ‘Brain Scan of Traders Shows Link Between Lust for Sex and Money,’ by Adam Levy, February 1, 2006.”

Many writers find interesting nonfiction articles and incorporate the concepts into their fiction. That’s OK, because facts are not copyrightable — paraphrase, and it’s fine. If a piece was particularly useful, mention it in the acknowledgements. But Mr. Berberian uses distracting asterisks to point readers toward the foot of the page.

The author also employs footnotes to needlessly (and sometimes poorly) expand concepts he’s mentioned in the text. Take this passage:

“He began to count the recurring patterns in the leaves. There were five main lobes radiating from the stem. The sublobes were similar to the larger ones in outline, structured in a logarithmic Fibonacci sequence:* 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and so on and so on.”

Mr. Berberian could quite easily have explained the Fibonacci sequence in the next sentence. But instead, just above the page number sits “* The ratios of successive Fibonacci numbers approach the golden ratio as n approaches infinite.” No explanation of the “golden ratio” (about 1.618, a proportion found often in nature and art) — and he left out the most important part, namely that each number in the Fibonacci sequence is the sum of the two preceding ones. That’s something the average reader could latch onto.

Sometimes the footnotes neither suggest additional reading nor educate; they’re just there because Mr. Berberian is lazy or needs to fill space. Rather than finding a natural way to work in the words “Portfolio Manager,” the author has a character refer to the “PM*.” He lifts passages straight from “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and numerous other writers. He mentions “the beauty marks on [Alix‘s] back.*,” with “* Different than birthmarks mentioned on page 77” as the note. “Geox*” leads to “* The shoe that breathes.” Out of the blue, another footnote converts an American bra size to French.

Write the necessary information into the narrative, or spare us. Please.

With all these unneeded facts, one would hope to find the needed ones readily available. One would be disappointed: It’s difficult to follow the plot in places, and Mr. Berberian never explains short selling, the process through which Wayne bets against stocks.

(For the record, here’s what short selling is. Say I think a company’s stock is going to fall. I borrow $1,000 worth of shares in that company from a securities lending firm and sell them at that price. The stock plunges by the time I have to give the shares back, and that number of shares now costs $600. I buy the shares, return them and pocket $400, minus whatever fee I owe the firm. The catch is that if the stock goes up, I still have to buy the shares back and return them to the firm with a fee.*)

What a spectacular misfire. From Mr. Berberian’s broad knowledge base and often deft writing it’s clear he has talent, but “Das Kapital” makes remarkably poor use of it.

* A more detailed explanation is available in the Wikipedia article “Short (finance).”

Robert VerBruggen (rver bruggen@washingtontimes.com) is Assistant Book Editor.

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