In Candide, published in 1759, Voltaire’s characters endure syphilis, enslavement, near-drowning, a catastrophic earthquake, the forced removal of one buttock, and the loss of treasured pet sheep. None of this shakes the title character’s optimism. Candide, “a youth whom nature had endowed with a most sweet disposition,” believes, as does his mentor Pangloss, that theirs is “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire’s modus operandi was to skewer the chipper tenets of philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), who believed our planet, made by God, to be an inherently good and reasonable place.
Candide is a cheeky book, and admirably so. The same can be said of David Allan Cates’s X Out of Wonderland: A Saga, a modern adaptation of Voltaire’s satire. Wonderland is well-served by its brevity (152 pages) and by Cates’ buoyant, insightful prose. This is humor that stings a little, and the author’s observations are funny and fine-tuned throughout.
Cates’ hero, called X “in order to protect from unwanted commercial solicitations,” is a proud resident of Wonderland, where “abundance had not been accidental, but created by brave religious and economic refugees.” X is a home improvement advisor and host of a public radio show (Home Renovation and Repair Issues) until a tornado strikes and his “water-sealed redwood deck” splinters into bits. Hungry and homeless, he wanders to a nearby Chinese restaurant and meets “the woman in pink lamé” and “the boy with the Cleveland Indians baseball cap.” The trio drinks and bonds and the saga begins in earnest; pages later, they are carjacked and imprisoned in a nameless border country.
“Life is amazing,” says X, between incarceration and second mugging.“[A]lthough we can search the world and buy more consumer goods than we could ever use, there is always still a yearning inside for more.” If Voltaire’s pet peeve was Leibniz’s joy in the face of so much Old World tyranny and head-chopping, Cates’s bugbear is the global free market, which in Wonderland leads to military boorishness, sweatshop labor, an extreme addiction to shopping, and an equally extreme abuse of things earthy and green. X, despite his allegiance to the motherland, struggles to “reconcile the beauty of the planet with the common misery of its inhabitants.”
What is a member of the global free market to do? After numerous misadventures, including a memorable visit to a village of phallus worshippers, X returns to Wonderland with the baseball-capped boy and the pink-laméd woman to settle in “a faux-colonial cottage in the country.”
In Candide, Voltaire’s hero concludes, “Let us cultivate our garden,” as Pangloss yammers on about goodness. In the end, too much talk gives sweet Candide a headache.
The woman in pink lamé likewise decides,“It’s time to go to work.” She doesn’t mean Puritan-flavored drudgery, just the solace of some action between heady cocktail-hour conversations. If not the best of all possible worlds, it’s a world “much older than any of us and it’ll be around a lot longer too,” as X says. So we’re stuck with it. But, meanwhile, we can groom a potentially kick-ass lawn, particularly if we live with a home-improvement expert. Cates is a relentless smart aleck, but I sense he genuinely cares about the Global Mess we’re in. Wonderland makes me want a green patch of my own and a cocktail, surely the sign of an effective satire.