Das Kapital
By Viken Berberian
Published by Simon & Schuster
June 2007; 0743267230; 192 pages

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Das Kapital by Viken BerberianChapter One

He dreamt that the world was coming to an end. Yet he knew that this was a dream and not a nightmare. There was no sign of a tumultuous ending, of the sky falling down. There were no screams or sirens. He sat in front of a computer screen, Zenlike, watching the numbers fall. He could tell by the size of their drop that something terrible had happened. He did not have to listen to the news to know this. The numbers said everything. He went deeper into sleep, resigned to an inner faintness. He rolled over in his bed, an oracular smile on his face, as if he had known all of this would somehow happen.

He let out a laugh as one benchmark tumbled after another. Then someone whispered in his ear: "Shshhhhhhhh. Sell, Wayne, sell, or you'll be wiped out. Shshhhhhhhh. Sell, Wayne, sell, you better sell now."

He pressed a few more keys, like a concert pianist playing a mournful prelude, an end-of-the-world elegy to humanity. An amber graph appeared on the upper left-hand corner of his screen, charting the big bang of the human heart. Then, without warning, the numbers halted their fall. A searing pain penetrated his lumbering body.

When he woke up, everything around him was just as it had been the day before.

His loft was functional, almost empty. There were the requisite designer pieces: the pliable plastic bookcase inspired more by itself than by the ideas that it held; the hand-woven tatami in place of a back-friendly mattress; the Ingo Maurer lamp whose fragile frame suggested a home absent of children. The floor was cement gray, just as it had been yesterday. He looked out his windows across the West Side Highway. The abandoned warehouses were still there, remnants of a forgotten recession when he was still a toddler.

There was order all around him. His undershirts were stacked by increments of seven. His books were arranged by color. His furniture was mostly Nordic, linear. He woke up at five every morning, including Sundays, not because he was an insomniac, but because there was work to be done. He checked the weather forecast along the Mediterranean basin, measured the tropics of terror below the thirty-fifth parallel; the corn yield in Kansas; the price of Brent Crude oil at $50 a barrel; the cases of missing forests, wholly uprooted, whittled and wasted, unreported.

Nature. He disliked its prickly stems, its bramble and bush, the obstinate precision of its cycles, its preconfigured calendar, the coded tapestry of its patterns, the singular and undeviating smugness of its hills, standing stubbornly in the way of human progress.

Before going to work he studied the atlas under a desk lamp, passing his magnifying glass over deltas, oceans and valleys. From Kabul to New York, always drifting from the periphery to the core, in precise concentric circles. At the office he stared into a luminous screen, into his precipitous and fateful future. He was chained to his Bloomberg. And yet to him, the Gloomberg, as he sometimes called the news retrieval system perched on his desk, was more than a processor of bad news. It was a repository of the outside world; a guardian of numerical itineraries; a facilitator of greater wealth and its destruction.

In the financial community he is simply known as Wayne. There have been unconfirmed sightings at the Odeon, where someone claims to have seen him once eating with his hands, even of pissing on his plate. They are not to be believed. Rumors. They are there to be denied, or if the market is open, to be traded on.


At the Midtown offices of the hedge fund a heavy downpour drummed on the windows. Then, all of a sudden, the rain stopped and a streak of sunlight broke through a cumulus cloud. Wayne looked outside. 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. Trading was like space-time arbitrage, the twisting vectors of a supersonic jet. It did not matter whose side he was on. He belonged to a society where transactions superseded human relations. There were no friends or enemies in the steel and glass towers, just transactions, best made in silence or against the neutral whir of the air conditioner.


 

He looked into the Bloomberg. Everything became clear again. There were familiar diagrams on his two screens. Each plotted point was the expression of a just measure. Each fraction was a clue to a hidden treasure. Each decimal lent dignity to a perverse pleasure, until a 24K bloc crossed the tape. The bids were relentless, growing bigger in size. This made Wayne neither happy nor sad. He took pride in dominating the odds, but when they turned against him, he rarely complained, pretending to be immune to the market's gyrations, to the occasional dirty tricks that life played on him.

"It's a hostile takeover," his trader said.

"How's it being financed?"

"Not sure yet, just hit the tape. Let me call some guys and get a refresher on it."

"Forget it, just lose it. Let's just fucking get out."

He felt triumphant at the end of the third calendar quarter.

Most hedge funds had lost money betting on a rebound. Screw them. He had warned them of the coming catastrophe, but they did not listen. Now they would have to pay with their lives. Whose fault was that? Last week he warned a portfolio manager about buying shares of Mickey Ds. "Dude, everyone likes a hamburger," the manager shot back. "It's like a noncyclical stock. I don't know what the right price is, but if it goes up, God Bless America."

"But it's not gonna go up," Wayne said. "It has no juice."

"Trust me, it's gonna rip."

"Rip, my ass. It's sitting on its ass."

"Whatever, dude."


Wayne turned his attention to another beleaguered stock. He entered the ticker of a Corsican timber company into the Bloomberg. The Bustaci Frères Fibre Company was the only papermaker in the world located on an island. Most of the traders who bought and sold Bustaci stock did not know that Corsica was an island, or that it was the birthplace of Napoleon, or that the Corsicans spoke their own language, which was perhaps not as cryptic as Armenian but was quite difficult to discern in its own right. All they cared about was whether Bustaci would produce more timber next year than last, or if it would increase its output of corrugated cardboard, or if the stock price went up or down. On the global exchanges investors took a bulimic stance on Bustaci shares and their bouts of irrational buying were often followed by episodes of self-induced vomiting. No one knew the reason for this obsessive behavior. The stock made an effort to climb back at the start of the week following a Lehman Brothers upgrade.

"I've spoken with the Lehman analyst," Wayne shouted to no one in particular. "This is one brother who has his head up his ass."

"It's up a buck," his trader IM'd back.

"It's a fake-out, sell more of it."

"You got it, boss."

A few minutes later the stock began to drop just as Wayne had surmised.

"I knew I was right," Wayne said. "This bitch is going down faster than a Ukrainian hooker."

And so he sat in front of his Bloomberg, frozen, watching the numbers fall, as if the world were coming to a quiet, civilized end. If history was any guide, no one knew what would happen next. "Sell, sell, sell," Wayne screamed at his Bloomberg. "Sell, or you'll be wiped out!" Soon after this visceral outburst the S&P faltered and one benchmark tumbled after another. Nasdaq dropped the most since the bombings in Beirut. At the end of June, the S&P dropped twelve handles. Wayne instructed the trade desk to raise cash and prepare for a sharper fall.


When the market closed he looked at the plants next to his desk. They looked more uncertain than the stock symbols on his screen. He ran his palm over a leaf. It felt like an extraterrestrial tongue, viscous and velvety. This sensation made him twitch, this feeling of being affected by an alien world. He longed for something familiar, like the comforting pattern of an oblong distribution. He felt a little guilty about this. Was the idea of an oblong-shaped leaf any less credible than an ordinary one? He examined the plant, but this time he did not see green. 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 overlapping spirals. They were arranged in a logarithmic Fibonacci sequence:* 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and so on and so on. He felt at peace counting the numbers, over and over again. It was music to his ears, a paean to phi (ø), which was the closest he ever hoped to get to perfection.

Copyright © 2007 by Viken Berberian

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Synopsis

Moving seamlessly between the financial skyscrapers of New York and the crisp blue skies of Corsica and Marseille, Das Kapital is an extraordinary homage to Marx's seminal work for the twenty-first century. Wayne is the emblematic Wall Street trader: opportunistic, brash and driven. His position is something of a rarity; he bets against the market's rise, gambling vast quantities of money on the short sell and profiting hugely from the collapse of entire economies and cultures -- in short, from the dissolution of financial and social infrastructure on a global scale -- all from the remote comfort of his Gloomberg terminal.

To accomplish this, Wayne enlists the aid of a cryptic Corsican whose own culture and identity are fast disappearing in the rise of a universal nationality -- one whose common language is email and whose treasured artifacts are zipped into slick JPEGs, viewed only in thumbnail size. Unbeknownst to them, both men are involved with the same woman, an architecture student named Alix who lives in Marseille. But while she and the Corsican have a physical relationship, it is the playfully erotic and strangely elusive email correspondence between Alix and Wayne that evokes both passion and tenderness.

Exquisitely written and infused with moments of irresistible humor, Das Kapital is a riveting story about capitalism and love, and the technology that controls them both.

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Author

Viken BerberianViken Berberian formerly worked at an investment firm researching New York Stock Exchange-traded companies. In 2000 he received a grant from the Arpa Foundation for Film Music and Art (AFFMA). He is now a novelist and has also written for The New York Times, the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. For the past five years he has lived and worked in Manhattan, Paris and Marseille.

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