Candide has returned. And what was true in Voltaire’s day remains so today: “Imagine all the contradictions, all the incompatibilities you can, and you will see them in the government, the courts, the churches, and the plays of this crazy nation.”
In David Allan Cates’s new novel, X Out of Wonderland, Candide resumes his optimistic role as the character X from the surreal yet recognizable country of Wonderland. Blessed with a beautiful house, his own radio show and a tantalizing African Wonderlandian woman named C, X earnestly believes that “Wonderland’s abundance had not been accidental, but created by brave religious and economic refugees who, despite offensive Old World habits, such as massacring natives and importing slaves, had the genius and pluck to build the Global Free Market.” A former student of the esteemed Dr. Fingerdoo, X credits his belief to Fingerdoo’s economic mantra: “Optimism and Positive Thinking in the creation of Wealth and Prosperity.”
Optimism, however, proves difficult to maintain when X loses his radio show (“because of a ‘bump’ on the Global Free Market highway”), and his home and all his assets in a tornado for which he will receive no recompense (his insurance company filed for bankruptcy just a few days earlier “when the economy burped”). Though modeled after Candide, Wonderland’s prose, both eerie and playful, has an imagery all its own: “C had not been listening to the news—she was bathing in bubbles—and the [tornado’s] funnel sucked her out of the tub and up with a cloud of her home office papers and gently set her down, wet and naked, amid a snowstorm of falling receipts and invoices.”
Now homeless and penniless, X succumbs to a series of devastating economic and personal travesties. After falling in love with the enormously successful C (her prosperity embodies Fingerdoo’s ideals), X loses her, witnesses a murder, is falsely imprisoned for that murder, befriends a woman in pink lamé, eventually witnesses that woman’s rape, reunites with C, loses her again—and all this represents only half of X’s misfortunes in the 152-page novel.
Wonderland’s model, Candide, stands out as one of the sharpest and funniest satires around. Published in 1759, Voltaire wrote it as a critical attack against nobility, the church and, as he saw it, cruelty. Throughout his own series of misfortunes, Candide remembers the flawed philosophy of his teacher, Pangloss, who tells him that his world is “the best possible of all worlds.” Through Pangloss, Voltaire parodies religious optimism: because an all-good, all-powerful God created the world, the world must be perfect. When humans perceive something as wrong or evil, it’s merely because they don’t understand the ultimate good the so-called evil was meant to serve. “Since pigs were made to be eaten,” Pangloss justifies, “we eat pork all year round.” Voltaire’s farcical tale ends on an uncertain note. Though alive and, seemingly at peace, Candide has lost much, if not all, of his optimism.
This inferred myopia is nothing new in comedy. The French playwright Ionesco once claimed, “There’s only a thin line between the horrible and the comic.” And Gogol’s melancholy commentary was that “the longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.”
If any of the more recent political polls are even a little bit true, observations like these are especially appropriate. More and more of us get our news and political cues from the likes of Jon Stewart or Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the duo responsible for “South Park” and last year’s raunchy Team America. Sure, it make us laugh, but the proliferation of satirical comedy during the last couple of years points to the fact that many of us find something inherently more honest in the characterizations and exaggerations of these spoofs than in more sober depictions of current events like, say, the nightly news.
After a scene during which a group of sailors rape the woman in pink lamé, one of the sailors explains to X: “We need counseling. We admit it. We need to talk to a professional just as badly as we need pussy.” In response, X lamely replies, “Just try to imagine a world without violence toward women.” The incisive attack satirizes both the destructive mentality of the sailor as well as X’s impotent pacifism.
Although Wonderland might not have the same mass appeal as “The Daily Show” (alas, literary fiction rarely does), it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see how well Cates’ hilarious, yet sharply drawn critique stands up to contemporary sentiment. Ultimately we find something oddly familiar in the relentless merry-go-round that is X’s world. Echoing his predecessors, Cates has created a world as cruel and destructive as it is funny. Absurd and enduring, X Out of Wonderland does indeed imagine all our contradictions and incompatibilities, yet X in his earnest faith also allows us to imagine our capacity for patience and joy.
David Allan Cates will read from and sign copies of X Out of Wonderland at Fact & Fiction Friday, Sept. 16, at 7 PM, and at Shakespeare & Co. Saturday, Sept. 17, at 2 PM.