Satire can be heartfelt, and this slim modern saga descended from Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift, among others, speaks as kindly as it does bitingly about the cruel vagaries that bedevil the lives of the residents of Wonderland, a country eerily reminiscent of our own.
“X” is a young college-educated and gainfully employed man of indeterminate age, possessed of a solidly built house and a reasonably happy job as a public radio host and homebuilding consultant. His adventures in Wonderland begin when he is unexpectedly laid off from his job because a large retail homebuilding center has taken over sponsorship of his radio program.
A tornado levels his home just as he is beginning to deal with his loss. When X goes to file a homeowner’s claim, he finds his insurance company had declared bankruptcy some days before. He falls, suddenly and very deeply, into the landscape of Wonderland’s dispossessed. — Joyce Brusin
The Free Market as a Big Fat Sow (that Eats her Farrow)
an excerpt from the novel X out of Wonderland
The first morning in jail, X watched a Mexican boy get bullied during breakfast. Three young black men apparently had given him cigarettes, and he had not paid them back, so they surrounded him and acted as if they were real hungry and would he please share. He said sure and gave up his plate. But his tormentors accidentally on purpose threw the food back in his face. He was just a teenage boy and there was nothing he could do. He had to let them smash oatmeal in his face and then use his shoulders and hair for a napkin. The rest of the prisoners sat and watched the boy cry. They were all so afraid they could barely look at each other. But X couldn’t endure it. He stood up and went over to the bullies and asked them to please stop. He acknowledged that this jail was a nasty place, and that historically black people had certainly suffered, but that was no reason to rub food on anybody. Incarceration had caused shortages and suffering for all, he explained, so in addition to staying well-hydrated in this dreadfully dry cell, it was clear they also needed to stay confident and have faith that very soon the Global Free Market would improve everybody’s prospects.
The three tormentors paused in their use of the Mexican boy as a napkin. They stood open-mouthed, listening, and when X finished his speech they took his head in their hands and pushed him forward and cracked it mercilessly against the table, thump, thump, thump, over and over again until he lost consciousness.
Later that day, X was taken to a new cell specifically for suspected terrorists. It was a dark and damp dungeon, and his face was swollen and lips bloody, but at least he was by himself. His friend with whom he’d been arrested, the woman in pink lamé, had been thrown into another dungeon separated from his by a thick concrete wall. She went through an alcoholic withdrawal that caused her to scream like a crazy woman for three days, but when it ended she began to tap out messages on the concrete wall. In a code they invented, she described beautiful landscapes of orange trees and distant turquoise seas, and feasts of chicken and beef and pork and halibut and salmon and spongy chocolate cake, and cool mint ice cream, and aromatic Turkish coffee, and long and tender lovemaking sessions with a man she referred to only as The Lieutenant. The story seemed interminable, especially in code, but it made the long dreary days and the long rat-bitten nights bearable.
Then one day the woman in pink lamé’s stopped tapping her story. X tried to start her up again by tapping out the last sentence that she’d tapped for him, but received no response. His filthy cell grew colder and lonelier, his only company death itself, always reposing in the shadows. His one distraction was to remember the cheerful afternoons he spent at the hardware store familiarizing himself with products, the jolly fun doing the radio show, and the relaxing evenings on his waterproof deck. Had it all been a dream? He remembered learning in school how the dream of Wonderland had been kept alive by suffering people everywhere, and so perhaps if it weren’t for suffering people everywhere, Wonderland would not exist.
This made him optimistic, because judging by the groans and screams he heard coming from the other cells down the hall, there was certainly a lot of suffering going on. Also, he sometimes overheard the guards whisper to one another of their growing portfolios, so he knew the stock market was going up again. His blood surged with the expectation of freedom and prosperity and cleanliness, and he even dared to imagine his girlfriend, C, again, every inch of her flesh. When he slept, he’d dream that he was back on track with his career, and that C had moved in with him and they were remodeling together for the new baby she was carrying in her pretty brown tummy.
Then one day the door to his cell opened and two burly guards smelling of Power Bars grabbed him, handcuffed and blindfolded him, and dragged him up the stairs. “What’s going on?” he managed to ask.
“The jail’s been privatized and the care of prisoners has been out-sourced to a facility across the border,” a voice answered. “We’re losing our jobs,” said another.
A new guard took his arm and pushed him into a truck.
“What about the woman in pink lamé?” he managed to ask.
The new guard whispered something unintelligible in a pepper breath so foul it singed X’s nose hairs.
The truck drove down a bumpy road for what seemed hours, although X had lost all ability to judge time. He missed C, and he missed the woman in pink lamé, and he didn’t know why—just because he was a suspected terrorist—he had to be alone all the time. Finally the truck stopped, and he was taken out, and led into a cool, coal black cellar. He thought he was alone but sometime during the night he felt the familiar nibble of rats on his feet. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t keep from screaming. He screamed all night, until his voice had grown into something detached, an entity apart from him, and the pain and terror grew numb and distant, too.
In the morning, he was awakened, and the same guard with the foul pepper breath led him back up the stairs, mumbled something about cost-cutting measures, then opened a thick wooden door and pushed him out onto the hot and dusty street lined with adobe houses.
X blinked and rubbed his eyes. “Am I free?” he asked.
The guard kicked him hard on the bottom, which X interpreted as yes.
Feeling hungry and hearing a commotion down the block and around the corner, X set off to find something to eat.
He turned the corner and saw a cloud of dust and a cluster of shanties and people that extended for blocks. The market! He felt happy to be here, happy to have a little money in his pocket, happy to finally be free to shop. He strode confidently down the street and entered into the mass of humanity and commodities. He passed huge piles of melons and apples and grapes and barrels of rice and corn and beans and coffee, and he passed boys selling watches and necklaces, and rings, and women selling brightly colored fabric and feathers, and he passed men selling snake oil, barrels of oil, oil rights, and pictures of the cartoon character Olive Oyl. He passed recreational-, miracle-, and dangerous drugs, booths selling land lots and land rights, and right of ways, easements and ease. He passed all races and ages of men and women selling mythologies and the skeletons of their ancestors. He passed people selling memoirs, and the rights to publish memoirs, and the right to sell the right to sell a memoirs, and sunglasses, and hundreds of plastic yellow ducks, and hammocks, baskets of frog legs, butterflies, and flowers. He passed blessings for sale, and curses for sale, and a man waving a smoking ball on a chain selling forgiveness. Thousands of eager young boys and girls stood scrubbed and combed, all for sale. A man sold tickets to a Dr. Fingerdoo lecture on Indian Scalps to Crack Cocaine: the Growth of Prosperity through Product Development. He passed men selling vials of sperm, woman selling ovum in Petrie dishes, and an old midget selling tacos. Despite his hunger, X moved on.
There were plenty of shoppers, too, hundreds and thousands of buyers shouting and reaching out their hands. Some wanted to buy hair. Some wanted to buy hair color. Many wanted sex secrets, investment secrets, or the secret of happiness and sobriety. Some wanted lies and others wanted truth, and still others bought chicken soup in a can. Whole sections of the market were designated for ideas, both good and bad, whispered or shouted in hoarse voices by red-faced vendors. There were imitation wood grain products, and imitation crab, sapphires, vanilla, and musk. Large sections of the market were dedicated to imitations, others to originals, but X could see no clear line to show an eager consumer where one section ended and another began.
X passed long lines of people waiting to sell their souls so they could keep shopping, and even longer lines of those willing to betray someone for silver, as the price for betrayals was always been paid in silver.
The din swallowed X. He made his way fascinated and enchanted passed naked chickens hanging upside down, dead pigs, live pigs, herds of horses, mules, and slaves. He paused by one of the slaves and asked, “Do you know where they sell burgers and fries?”
But the crowed moved him on before he got an answer. People shouted and grabbed and dangled shiny things in front of his eyes. The sun, the heat, the dust made him dizzy. An old man wearing a dead albatross around his neck tried to give away a very a long poem but nobody wanted it.
“If he charged something,” a passerby mumbled, “he’d have buyers!”
“Packaging’s the problem,” said another. “He’s not attractive.”
X passed booths selling products to fill your pock scars, to improve the shape of your nose, bottom, breasts, or penis. He stepped aside to avoid another man dangling a smoking ball on a chain selling the power to resist temptation and love your neighbor and live forever. A beautiful woman, half dressed, sold a song and a soft drink and a glimpse at her nipples. X passed piles of conches and pucca shells and sand and gravel and huge chunks of rock, and girls without hands selling diamonds, and guerilla thugs selling the girls hands, and other people sold the space in their bowels or vagina for carrying drugs, and others sold the skin of their face for kisses, and others sold a chance to throw a ball through a hoop, or hoop over a bottle, or to throw a water balloon at a grinning parent, or a chance to throw dart at a balloon, or to ride in a balloon, or go to the moon, or a chance to see a freak of nature, or a chance to ride on a bicycle built for two, or in a rickshaw. Others simply sold chances.
A jumbo jet plane had been parked on the street, and a ticket agent sold tickets to any and all parts of the world served by air traffic.
“I love to travel,” said a woman next to X.
Grateful to hear a human voice speaking to him, and only him, he turned, but the woman was gone. He turned the corner into a darker part of the market, and passed a man with his abdomen slit open selling his organs. A woman squatting to give birth to sell her baby. He passed the line for life insurance, car insurance, and university degrees. He passed football teams for sale, the players standing in the hot sun in their uniforms, their stadiums behind them, and then he turned another corner and he wandered past baskets of bombs that killed within a ten foot radius, within a twenty foot radius, within a hundred and a thousand-foot radius. Bombs that burned their victims, bombs that blew the victim apart, bombs that sent chunks of jagged metal tearing through the victims flesh. Bombs that killed everybody in the world except for the person who used it, and bombs that killed everybody including the person using it, and also firecrackers and cherry bombs and lady fingers, and poison gasses and envelopes and paper clips and toxic compounds that removed rust from your car. He passed men and woman at attention with signs hanging from their necks, doctors, lawyers, generals, and eager young soldiers-for-rent standing in lines that went as far as the eye could see. He passed stacks and stacks of caskets, of flags. He passed baskets of newts and eyes of newts and broomsticks and wands and household cleaning chemicals, and women with gnarled hands to use them. He passed clothing in every color for every part of the body, and for every sport or activity. Sailing outfits, and biking outfits, and soccer outfits, and jogging outfits, and shoes for hiking, and shoes for dancing, and shoes for cutting a deal. He passed undergarments for support, and undergarments for hygiene, and undergarments for seduction or incontinence. He passed moonbeams and sage and tangerine and moonbeams in jars, and sage in jars, and tangerines in cans. He passed people selling advice in all languages: on buying homes, on losing weight, on getting along with your mother in law, on your love life, sex life, past lives. Some people charged money to lay their hands on you, and others charged money to let you lay your hands on them. All X wanted was a burger and fries, and he knew he’d find one, but he didn’t know if he’d die of starvation first.
Finally he turned another corner and there he saw a woman selling lime vodka. Her head was draped with a black cloth, but her head was moving back and forth, back and forth, so X couldn’t resist stooping to see under her veil. Her pink eye shadow and Betty Boop eyes were unmistakable, as was the collar of her pink lamé dress poking up from under the veil. She recognized him, too, and they hugged and danced and kissed and hugged, and even through all the layers of his clothing and hers, he began to get aroused, he couldn’t help it, and she pushed him away and said, “Let’s be platonic friends, okay? I like to save sex for when I really need something.”
“Okay,” X said, embarrassed because he didn’t want the woman in pink lamé for a lover. It’s just that it had been a long time, and her soft body felt good.
“And besides,” she said, “you’re still looking for your gal, what’s-her-name, right?”
X told her yes, of course.
“How did you find me?” she asked him.
“I was looking for something to eat. I felt discouraged, but I remember something my mom always told me,” X said. “‘There’s something else around the corner, you bet!’ So I came over here and hey, here you are! How’d you get out?”
“I was released as long as I performed some ‘good behavior’ on some of the guards,” she said. “They were just men, you know, they had their needs, and I needed to be free, so I took them up on their offer and here I am, sober, and back in sales, and working for myself, finally, and my foreign-language skills have improved significantly.”
X pointed to the basket full of green lime vodka bottles. “Are you making any money?”
She took his hand and guided it to a hard roll of something between her breasts.
“Plenty!” the woman in pink lamé whispered. “There are no taxes!”
“Are there hamburgers?”
“We’ll find something,” the woman said.
And finally they did. There were lamb burgers and turkey burgers and buffalo burgers and pizza burgers, and burgers with every kind of cheese and topping, and finally, of course, just plain burgers. X asked for two of them from a pole faced woman who took his money and handed him the burgers. He and the woman in pink lamé walked down the block and found a little park with a patch of grass and shade. While they ate, X chatted happily about his mother, the source of his optimism during the longest and darkest of his prison days.
“She told me once how she stayed up all night long on a mountain praying and singing. She watched the moon fade into the shadows of the night and the sun rise into the gift of a new day and she told me she was at peace knowing that although she was not at all good on the inside, and she’d never live up to her childhood dreams, that the Global Free Market as manifested in Wonderland loved her for who she was ever since the moment she was born into this world a baby consumer. Mobility and choice, she taught me, are the twin virtues, and life is amazing in that although we can search the world and buy more consumer goods than we could ever use, there is always a yearning inside us for more, isn’t there?”
“That’s beautiful,” the woman in pink lamé said, dabbing a tear from her eye. And so they stood up and walked around the corner, and sure enough, there was something more, a cute little Persian Restaurant, where the woman in pink lamé took X into the ladies room, and locked the door, and gave him a thorough paper towel bath, and except for the occasional fingernail flick on his penis, he felt happy and good and lucky to have found his friend, who washed all of the dungeon dirt off him, then dressed him, and by this time they were hungry again, and so they found a window table and ate happily on and on until the sun set over the dusty free market.
The days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months and years, and X helped the woman in pink lamé sell lime vodka, and they made a lot of money. They made so much money that they needed to do something with it besides stuff it in their pillows and mattresses, and under the floor boards of their little room, so they invested in plastic flowers and chopsticks, African gourd rattles, and artificially-flavored beef. They made even more money as a result of these investments. The days went on, the buyers kept coming, and their platonic partnership grew stronger. Yet despite his success, X never forgot about C, and he always wondered where she was, and what she was doing, and who she might be consulting for. He tried not to think about who she might be having sex with, but often wondered anyway.
X and the woman in pink lamé began to feel like an old married couple after packing up their wares and returning to their very comfortable condominium in the evening, he sitting on the couch doing a crossword puzzle, her getting an on-line MBA. They began to feel happy, even, and X thought what a great world, what an amazing world. He had money stuffed in his pockets, drawers and shoe boxes and cupboards, and they made investments in companies all the way across the marketplace, companies that they didn’t even have time to visit, companies whose activities remained mysterious, companies that nevertheless sent them regular hunks of cash.
“It’s great not to have any government regulation,” X said.
In addition to selling goods and services, vendors in the market began to sell their entire booths to new buyers offering more money than many of the smaller vendors had ever seen in their long lives of toil. The new owners would often sell the product but not restock, then they’d sell the booth itself, the poles and sticks and nails, the pieces of black plastic and corrugated zinc, and sometimes they’d even sell the people running the booth, leaving only an empty space where the booth had been, and like this, the market began to feed on itself. The buyers of booths tried to buy our heroes’ booths, but X and the woman in pink lamé chose not to sell and so they found themselves more and more isolated, with empty spaces growing around them. The swaths of empty space grew so big the wind and dust became a problem and the few customers who arrived at X and the woman in pink lamé’s booths arrived tired and thirsty and hungry, like intrepid travelers who had crossed a vast desert.
Then one day an ugly man with sour breath made his way to their booth and asked for a protection payment. They chose to pay him what he asked because they’d heard of others who had not, and who had suffered great losses.
“New people came and things changed,” the woman in pink lamé said after the sour-breathed man left.
“What?” X didn’t know what she was talking about.
“The history of the world in one sentence,” she explained.
The man came back the next day and asked for more money, and they paid him that, too. A few days afterward, a ragged private army of thugs came through on horseback, and they demanded money and goods, and hay for their horses, so X and the woman in pink lamé gave all they could. The soldiers got drunk on the lime vodka and destroyed much what they were supposed to protect. The next day they were gone, and X and the woman in pink lamé sighed deeply and rolled up their sleeves and re-built what had been destroyed. When they were finished, they were visited by agents for a civilian private security force who demanded payment to stand in the shadows and arrest suspicious-looking people. To prove how invaluable they were, the agents made a big show of beating and hauling off suspects, then dumping their tortured bodies on the edge of town, where everybody could see them, or smell them, or at least notice the circling vultures.
In addition to assuring vendors of the need for security, this growing pile of dead suspicious-looking people often inflamed the brothers and sisters and cousins of the suspicious-looking person, so that these brothers and sisters and cousins sometimes strapped explosives around their middle and walked out into the crowded parts of the market and blew themselves and other shoppers and security personnel into uncountable body parts. As ugly as these attacks were, they actually made the security company profits grow by decreasing the troublesome crowds and increasing the merchants’ need to pay for protection.
Soon no customers at all filled the wild spaces between vendors, only paid protectors. X and the woman in pink lamé still had some money coming in from one of their investments in a holding company, which apparently owned a number of private security firms. But what they paid for security was more than what they earned from these investments, and so finally one day the woman in pink lamé and X sat hungry and destitute on the street corner, no more vodka to sell, no more money left to pay for the right to sell it, and no extremely comfortable condominium. They could no longer pay for protection anymore, and so one night while X had stepped into an alley to urinate, he heard the screams of the woman in pink lamé as she was hauled off by professional thugs. “But I have an M.B.A.!” she shrieked. “I have an M.B.A.!”
X ran back around the corner to help, but she was gone. He passed the night frightened, sad, and hungry, and so in the morning he joined a long line of forlorn and ragged economic refugees moving – Mobility! – down the street past armed guards through a great wrought-iron gate to a shoestring factory, where he would choose – Choice! – to work in dim light dipping countless shoestrings into an endless vat of dye.
The first morning passed interminably. Standing on a yellow line painted on the concrete floor, belly to the vat, shoulder to shoulder with fellow employees, X’s back ached and his feet ached, and conversation was impossible. In order to prevent chit-chat, the company had arranged the employees so that no two standing next to each other spoke the same language.
“We believe in a diverse work force!” said a sign hanging over the middle of the factory floor.
His job was to dip shoelaces, one at a time, into the large vat of dye, then lift the shoelace and drape it over wires suspended above his head. Twice in the first hour he was beaten for not noticing that the shoestrings he dyed did not match one another. The beatings were administered to his knuckles with a large black garrote by a malformed boy who looked vaguely familiar.
He had to urinate but was told that he would have to wait until lunch break, during which time there was such a long line that he was called back to work before he had a chance to use the toilet. When he complained, he was given five more whacks across the knuckles, which hurt so much he lost control of his bladder and had to work the rest of the day in urine-soaked pants.
That evening he was paid enough money to buy tortillas and beans, and a piece of plastic and cardboard to build a home on a nearby street filled with other plastic and cardboard homes. His fellow workers urged him to drink in the evening all of the water he’d need for the next 24 hours, which caused him to get up numerous times during the night to pee in the alley, but also allowed him to forgo drinking anything in the morning and so avoid repeating the first day’s unpleasant disaster.
One the fifth day both workers on each side of X collapsed as they worked and lay motionless on the concrete floor. One was an old man who looked vaguely Asian, and the other an Ethiopian girl of not more than ten. At first X was just going to keep working for fear he’d be beaten if he stopped, but some remnant of decency turned him away from the vat. He dried his stained hands on his apron and reached down to check each body for a pulse. None. Horrified, he stepped over the girl and off the yellow line and crossed the vast factory floor toward a carpeted tunnel that led to the offices of lower management.
“Come in and sit down,” said a highly trained young personnel professional with nervous eyes.
X stepped into the office and did. The young executive folded his thin white fingers. X was transfixed by how smooth and white they were. His own were stained with dye.
“Two workers have died,” he said. “They keeled over on either side of me. First one, and then the other.”
The young man breathed an audible sigh. “How terrible for you.”
“Not for me,” X said. “Terrible for the girl and the old man.”
“Yes, of course.” The young professional pursed his lips. “But at least their deaths will pay a benefit.”
“A benefit?” .
Before he spoke, the young professional took a deep breath as if to reassure himself that it was for situations like this one that he’d been trained.
“We insure all of our workers,” the young man explained patiently. “The company is the beneficiary, and so by trickle-down, co-workers also benefit. Would you like access to a grief counselor?”
X shook his head sadly. He didn’t even know the dead people, which made him feel suddenly ashamed. How could he stand right next to them for hours and days and have no idea they were suffering so?
The young man made a small check on a piece of paper, then looked up at X, blank-faced, waiting. “Then what can I do for you?”
X cleared his throat. How could he begin to describe how in one short week, the hours and minutes of the day had become his enemy? How could he explain that when his two co-workers crumpled to the floor to close their eyes for the last time, their faces -- even the face of the little girl -- had an expression of joyful resignation?
“The working environment is simply not humane!” he said.
The young man licked his lips and smiled condescendingly. “Humane is a cultural construct.”
X had in his head the little girl’s face, her tiny dye stained fingers. He was trying not to cry.
“And culture, per se,” the young man said, “has done very little to help our customers gain access to cheaper goods.”
X blinked, swallowed, and gathered his courage. The malformed, familiar looking boy with the black garrote had quietly come into the office now stood behind him.
“I mean,” X said, “there’s little light, no stools, and--” He stopped, ashamed of the tears brimming in his eyes.
“What you are lucky enough to be witnessing,” the young man explained, “is the first tender green shoots of the Global Free Market spreading into new territory.”
“We can’t even use the bathroom!” X said, and he knew his voice sounded like a pathetic whine.
Unable to hide his irritation, the young personnel officer sat back in the chair and sighed. “Listen,” he tried again. “It is absolutely necessary for you workers to have the character required to keep your eyes on the big picture,” he explained. “Because if that isn’t possible, I guarantee the factory will simply move across the globe to find heartier workers.”
Suddenly ashamed at his lack of character, X stared at his dye-stained fingers.
“In fact, we might move anyway. We could shut down tomorrow, and then where would you be?”
X remembered the filth of the shanty town where he slept, the miserable rain and the cry of hungry children, the drug-dealing wolves prowling the edges looking to eat the weak and the broken, the girls lining up to sell themselves as soon at they could throw on a cheap dress and skip to the nearest street corner -- and also, of course, he remembered the woman in pink lamé hauled away as a vagrant by security. He nodded meekly.
The young executive smiled. “But just so you know we’re not beasts, let me say I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a change we have in store for you vat workers.”
And with that, the malformed, familiar-looking boy with the black garrote led X out of the office and back to the line. The dead had been carried away, and the line filled in with new workers. Before he left, the boy made a big show of giving X a quick flurry of stinging whacks across the back of the neck.
“Now don’t leave your place again!”
The next day the factory smelled different. A chemical had been added to the vats of dye so that they gave off toxic fumes that made the world of the factory a dreamy place, made the pain in his feet and back, and bladder disappear. Even the occasional beatings became tolerable, and the days and weeks and months passed as if on a current of air. The fumes were so addictive that after only a few hours sleep back in his plastic and cardboard shanty, X woke with an insupportable craving to get back to work.
A year passed this way, and then two. X’s eyesight was going bad, and he barely noticed the dull look on the faces of his fellow workers, some as young as seven or eight, others thirty or forty but looking eighty, and while he worked, he sometimes remembered his life in far away Wonderland. He spent entire shifts remembering particular callers to his radio show, like Doc in Slinger, calling about a miraculous ten-year old stain job. Or Bob in Lincoln, asking what kind of things he might be thinking about in regard to frost building up on his vinyl window casings. Or the man in Boscobel whose visiting lady friend created “quite a domestic issue” when she left spiked heel marks on his hardwood floor.
He also spent entire shifts picturing C’s every feature. He spent a week on her flaming red hair alone. Another on her milk chocolate skin, her neck, her shoulders....
Then one day he looked up from the vat of dye, up past the hanging light bulbs and their rainbow halos, up onto a catwalk suspended high above the factory floor, and there, looking down on the acres and acres of workers dipping shoelaces into vats of dye, he saw her. He looked and blinked, certain it was a dream. Then he saw her tilt her head back and laugh. The sound came to him through his drugged senses clear and familiar, and then she turned and even from way down below, he could see her round bottom filling her African-ish print skirt. He blinked and blinked again. He thought he must be fantasizing but nevertheless was pulled so thoroughly into the dream that he did something he hadn’t done since his first week on the job. He pushed away from the vat, stepped off the yellow line, and despite the guards shouting at him, he climbed up the pipes onto the catwalk, where he noticed three guards down on one knee, their rifles aimed straight at him, and behind them, C’s curious face.
Fearless as any dreamer, he said her name. He’d hung onto it like a badger after all, and her eyebrows went up and her eyes opened wide in recognition and her cherry-red lips moved when she told the guards to lower their guns. She ran to him, threw her arms around him and he threw his around her, and they hugged and kissed and looked deeply into each other’s eyes.
“Lover!” she said. “Gold hatted, high bouncing lover!”
So they went into her office and hugged and kissed some more. He took her clothes off and she did all of the things she’d done so long ago, and she still looked pretty, except a bit more wrinkled.
When they were done making love the first time, she stood up and clapped her hands twice, and yelled Encore! Encore! and so they fell into each other’s arms again.
The second time they finished, C excused herself to go to the ladies room and the malformed boy who’d done the beatings on the floor of the factory came into the office carrying tea.
The buzz from the dye fumes had worn off sufficiently so that X finally recognized him as his old friend who’d been shot by the same hitchhiker that turned X in as a suspected terrorist.
“You’re alive!” X yelled, then went to him and hugged and kissed him, but the boy wriggled free and spit on him.
“Don’t you recognize me?” X said.
“Of course I do,” the boy said. “I knew you from the first day you were working here. That’s why I beat you so mercilessly. You drove on after that homo cowboy shot me and pushed me out of the car. You left me on the road to die.”
“But he shot you in the head! I thought you were dead!”
“I was wounded, yes,” the boy said, and he lifted his cap high enough to point to the large hole above his right eye. “But I crawled away. I was employed by a sensual products company that sold my sexual services to shy women. Because I’d broken so many bones when I was pushed from the car, I could contort myself into a small box and be shipped discreetly by mail. For a boy who likes to fornicate as I do, you’d think that would be the dream job, but you’d be amazed at what shy women require to get hot before penetration! I couldn’t endure one more blushing female face describing to me her freaky fantasy! After a while all I could think was, Hey, what about me! What about my needs! So I escaped through a window one night, and found work distributing fliers advertising Dr. Fingerdoo lectures. While making my rounds, I was often picked on by underemployed low-income people. I was beaten, laughed at, and so I learned to focus my bitterness and rage and studied for certification to use this garrote here. It was about time I got practical. I earned top honors, and pretty much had my pick of employment. Amazing the demand for a person who can mercilessly beat victims without leaving a scar! When I saw the benefits and stock options that came with this job, well, I jumped on it.”
When C returned from the ladies’ room, she demanded to know why the boy was still there. X told her, and he watched her face cloud over.
“Well, go away now,” she snapped at the malformed boy, who scurried out.
X was going to protest, but C put her arm around his shoulder and kissed him under his ear. “Just because I love you,” she whispered in a voice that made him shiver with desire, “doesn’t mean I care about every freak sadist you’ve ever known in the past.”
They spent the afternoon getting reacquainted in her sumptuous office, drinking tea. X told her his story, and it made her weep, and so they stripped again and made love slowly, and then when they finished, she told him hers. She said she was at the spa getting a salt-glow oil massage when he’d come to look for her that fateful night after the tornado shelter closed. For a while she wondered why she never saw him again after their “night of bliss,” but then she figured he was a dog like most men. Anyway, she’d done all right. She raised her standard bill from 187 dollars and 37 cents to 346 dollars and 29 cents and it didn’t seem to matter. So she raised it even higher, to 922 dollars and 68 cents, and still people paid!
“Why wouldn’t they?” X asked. “Aren’t bills supposed to be paid?”
C laughed again. What music! He was already fully in love with her again.
“But I never do any strategic consulting,” she said.
“You don’t?” X asked. “What do you do?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I, or the computers—thank heavens for computers!—send bills randomly to companies all over the world. Thousands a month, and a certain percentage of companies pay. Who knows why? And who cares?” She went on to explain how the business made her fabulously rich, and so she’d invested in manufacturing facilities around the world, and this shoestring factory made so much money for her that she just had to come and see it. And so what a surprise and a coincidence and a miracle that in buying the factory, she would also find him, her old lover boy!
She pinched X’s cheek. The fumes had begun to wear off. He had a terrible headache. He said, “I’m addicted and I’m going to go through withdrawal, and I’m going to beg to be put down on the line again, but please ignore me. Just lock me in a padded room for three days and no matter what I say, don’t let me out.”
So that’s what C did. And for three tortuous days X suffered a magnificent hell in which all the great battles of the Civil War were fought in his skull. His brain grew so big it exploded, and then it shrunk, and he had to pull his hair to keep his skull from collapsing. Caissons rolled, troops marched, rifles fired, and when he finally emerged from the padded room, great handfuls of his hair were missing.
But he was sober, his eyes clear, and the slaves were free.
"X is a pilgrim of the Common Era..." by Joyce Brusin
Satire can be heartfelt, and this slim modern saga descended from Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift, among others, speaks as kindly as it does bitingly about the cruel vagaries that bedevil the lives of the residents of Wonderland, a country eerily reminiscent of our own. “X” is a young college-educated and gainfully employed man of indeterminate age, possessed of a solidly built house and a rea- sonably happy job as a public radio host and homebuilding consultant. His adventures in Wonderland begin when he is unexpectedly laid off from his job because a large retail homebuilding center has taken over sponsorship of his radio program. A tornado levels his home just as he is beginning to deal with his loss. When X goes to file a homeowner’s claim, he finds his insurance company had declared bankruptcy some days before. He falls, suddenly and very deeply, into the landscape of Wonderland’s dispossessed.
As he spends the next years wandering, X encounters various manifestations of the global free market, a place so revered by X’s college economics professors that one of them considered it to be divinely inspired. One of many memorable passages in the book is X’s visit to the largest of these marketplaces in a chapter titled “The free market as a big fat sow.”
He strode confidently down the street and entered into the mass of humanity and commodities. He passed huge piles of melons and apples and grapes, and barrels of rice and corn and beans and coffee…. He passed recreational, miracle, and dangerous drugs, booths selling land lots and land rights, and rights-of-way, easements, and ease…. He passed people selling memoirs and the rights to publish memoirs …hammocks, baskets of frog legs, butterflies, and flowers. He passed blessings for sale, curses for sale, and a man waving a smoking ball on a chain selling forgiveness…
X travels and lives with an assortment of companions—“the malformed boy,” “the lady in pink lamé,” and his mysterious love object, C. They appear and reappear, age and convalesce, as X wanders the globe and finally returns to his native country. Along the way he encounters jailers, factory owners, storytellers, and sailors. He survives encounters remarkable for their cruelty, yet meets up with nothing that can destroy his essential self. X is a pilgrim of the Common Era. He’s awash in the flotsam of greed, but faithfully continues to ply whatever trade will let him live.
Wonderland of satire is amusing, alarming
By John Mark Eberhart
The Kansas City Star, October 2005
Recently I wrote of my disappointment with George Saunders’ latest book, a satire called The Brief and Terrible Reign of Phil.
I’m a Saunders fan, but as I stated, his latest fiction failed for me because, while the satire was as pointed as Saunders ever makes it, I didn’t care a whit for the characters.
David Allan Cates’ X Out of Wonderland is the satire Phil wanted to be. This short novel is at once a swipe at capitalism run amok, a brilliant narrative of one man’s optimism in the face of misfortune and an example of how a writer can take on big themes without overlooking fiction’s obligation to offer compelling characters. The lead character is X, host of a radio talk show in which he provides listeners with advice on home care and repair — until, that is, the fickle media gods declare a change that leaves him jobless.
About the same time, X’s home is wiped out by a tornado. And the company that insured his home goes belly up.
The result: X is transformed from a rooted, employed individual into a drifter. During his journey into downward mobility, he meets some strange characters. He endures various hardships, which Cates renders as both funny and disturbing. And, strangest of all, X strives to maintain his faith in the free market economy and in Wonderland, his vast homeland that is so suggestive of our own America.
Cates made me care about X even as I grew maddened by the hero’s chirpiness. Part of the reason is that the author has tapped into the deep anxieties that plague the American psyche. The world in the last few years, beset by terrorist threats and economic doldrums, has not seemed a safe place. Thus it’s easy to cheer X, to hope he finds a way home, even as we question his absurdly naïve views.
Cates also has peopled this novel with minor characters that engage. One of the people X meets on his wanderings is a woman in pink lamé, an amusing but pathetic creature who regales X with her “background in medieval history and retail sales.” She and X take part in one of the book’s most harrowing passages, a car ride with a couple of thugs that ends in grisly, random violence. Cates isn’t just sending up greed in this novel; he’s reminding us that misfortune often drives individuals into dangerous places.
In the final analysis, I don’t know whether to be chilled or charmed by this book — a predicament, I suspect, that the author intended to inflict. I do know one thing: I can think of many powerful people in American life who, in my opinion, need to read this book.
X Marks the Satire
Missoulia Independent, September 2005
by Azita Osanloo
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.
A little slip of a tale in the manner of Voltaire’s Candide – which, like its prototype, puts tongue in cheek and takes on nothing less than the state of the nation and the state of the world.
And neither, ruled by the free market, is in good shape. Named “X,” our hero is a man experienced in the building trades (he has a public radio show on home repair) whose life is ruined when a tornado sweeps his house away and the nearby house of the woman (called “C” – as in Cunegonde?) he’s just fallen head-over-heels for. Not only does the shark insurance company renege, leaving X in penury, but the gorgeous C (an entrepreneur of some mysterious kind) has also disappeared entirely. And so X, like Candide, travels the world to find her. With a sullen young man and a woman in pink lame dress (they meet in a bar), he sets out by car across the Wonderlandian desert, picks up two hitchhikers who are felons on the lam: They shoot the sullen boy in the head, throw him from the moving car, then, at the border, get X and the woman in pink thrown in jail as “terrorists.” To recite more would be to follow knots on a string as adventure follows adventure. X and the woman become rich beyond measure, fall into craven poverty and are separated. There follow the slave labor of X (in a shoelace factory owned by none other than – C!); military servitude; escape to an edenic land (a ¢ la El Dorado) across the mountains (where the sullen boy reappears, not dead); return to the tormented Wonderland, spiritually crushed under “miracle of market expansion”; reunion the woman in pink, who is gang-raped like the Old Woman in Candide, and so on – and on.
Cates’s world is futuristic in tone yet based on our very own world today, in a witty, skillful, amusing and unrelentingly clear-eyed – satire.
Publishers Weekly, June 6 2005
Set adrift by sudden unemployment, the Candide-like protagonist of this biting satire of modern capitalism encounters other denizens of a dystopian Wonderland, including a con woman who mails bogus consulting bills to random businesses, some of whom pay up; a boy obsessed with sex; and a woman in pink lame with a "background in medieval history and retail sales." Sustained by faith in the "Global Free Market," they endure sweatshops, war and the incessant search for employment amid nonstop economic upheaval. Their calamities are soothed by a culture of inane uplift: workplace fatalities are papered over with grief counseling, management celebrates the diversity of its viciously exploited labor force and the Panglossian Dr. Fingerdoo urges mourners at a funeral to "visualize success." It's a funny caricature, but Cates (Hunger in America ) gets at something subtler. In a society that extols nomadism and gnawing insecurity as "Mobility and Choice," his characters surrender individual autonomy--and responsibility--to the mysterious workings of the market, concluding that the world is a "big wind" that "lifts and flaps us like sheets on the line, and our one true choice is to hang on or not." Cates delivers a caustic but never cynical take on what he sees as the demoralizing fatalism implicit in today's market-mad ideology. Agent, Emilie Stewart.
Ken Krimstein dot com
Wonderland The Beautiful
In case you hadn't noticed, the world itself is reading like a bad Silver Surfer comic book these days. Storms rage, pestilence brews, celebrities change religions like they used to change agents, a team from Chicago - CHICAGO!!! - is in the World Series. (Not that team, the other team - but still!) All that's missing is a superhero to make it all right.
Author and global do-gooder (he helps people write in Missoula and helps people get healthy in Honduras) David Allan Cates has noticed - and he came up with a short, powerful, delightful "Saga" that, while it's not a comic book, is the next best thing - a hilarious, upsetting, uplifting, upbraiding story that's a perfect combination of Vonnegut, Voltaire, and Seinfeld. In place of "Everyman," Cates introduces us to a public radio home improvement host, "a young man who, in order to protect from unwanted commercial solicitations, we'll simply call X." And like in all sagas, our intrepid X's world goes wrong, he's downsized (something to do with a glut of wheat crackers and toothpicks on world markets), and therein begins the story Cates has called X Out of Wonderland.
Cates has done a few very difficult things very easily here. First, he made it short. TV ready, so to speak. You could read this sucker while your Lexus is caught in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway or while you're zapping commercials with your TiVo. Smart. Second, he's managed to tell the truth with passion, with fury that never turns nasty. This is not easy because the truth is very hard to see and means something different for just about everyone. But to see the truth, one needs vision, and Cates certainly has a vision. In short, he sees our current invisible-hand-led global market of marketing and demographics and hedgy-fundy leveraged empowered hoo-dee-haa as nothing more or less than the short, brutish, and ugly world of the Dark Ages, back when they used to burn witches and mush their hands around in entrails to divine the future. In place of science and reason and humanity and charity, Cates expertly substitutes hokum, bunkum, and post-Nixonian double talk. You could call it stupidity, except that there's nothing stupid about it. The bad guys win, then lose; the good guys win, lose, get blasted with shotguns, survive; people get chucked out of jobs, countries, loves with as much ease as it takes to change from ESPN 2 to HGTV. Flick.
And through it all, X - our own little Candide - tries to believe that there's always something better around the corner, that the global market will cure everything, that might makes right because, as they say, history is written by the winners and as X's Dr. Pangloss (dubbed Dr. Fingerdoo here) would say, "winners make winning happen and if you're not a winner you're not on the right team." Or some such bunkum.
There are many funny and many disturbing parts of X's journey. It's all delightfully strange, which brings me to another difficult but wonderful thing Cates does- he has created a Kafka-esque, post-real, weird piece of writing that doesn't take a Ph.D. to understand. In many ways, except for the fact that Cates begins it with "Not long ago" instead of "Once upon a time," X Out of Wonderland reads like a fairy tale (a fractured fairy tale - could the magical Jay Ward be another of Cates's influences?). That's great. It has to compete with a lot of juvenile noise out in our own global market.
Cates sends up a lot of our current pieties - here, in a dialogue about some folks waiting on line to get jobs at at a job fair where in order to land a gig you have to prove you've made a sacrifice (one man had lopped off nine fingers!), X comments favorably on a poignant story from a fellow job seeker.
Lara Tupper X Out of Wonderland: A Saga The Believer - September 2005 "Cates is a relentless smart aleck, but I sense he genuinely cares about the Global Mess we’re in…."
These are some potential reading group topics:
1. X repeats over and over again the mantra “choice and mobility,” naming the twin virtues that anchor his belief in the global free market economy. How do “choice and mobility" play out for X? How have you experienced “choice and mobility” in your own life?
2. How is X's faith in the Global Free Market tested?
3. While he remains an optimist to the end, X’s faith in the Global Free Market is severely tested through his adventures. He has a cathartic moment when he returns from his job emptying coin boxes in porn shops to find that he has lost the woman in pink lame:
“Hours later, after having searched the neighborhood alleys and bars, X returned lonely and sad to his room. He lay on his bed and thought about his life long ago in a temperate land of pretty hills and thick soil, where people lived in sturdy well-built homes and earned sufficient pay and leisure time for an occasional trip to the tropics.”
In this scene X questions everything he’s ever believed in his life. Discuss how his attitude toward work and livelihood change after this scene.
4. Cates uses satire to point out the absurdities of the Global Free Market. For instance, in one job interview X is asked to display “evidence of sacrifice’: “We want to know you’ve suffered. We don’t believe in giving jobs to people who don’t appreciate them. We believe that if you’ve sacrificed for the job, you won’t quite on us.” Pick your favorite skewering of economic truth to discuss.
5. Besides the Global Free Market, what other aspects of modern life are satirized in this novel?
6. One reviewer said the author is a “relentless smart aleck”: Are there any instances in which you think the author has gone too far in his skewering the conventional ideas of modern society?
7. What does the genre of satire enable an author to accomplish that other forms of literature do not?
8. What particular situations in the novel strike you as particularly funny or moving? Or both? And why?
9. Who, with the exception of X, is your favorite character, and why?
10. X loves C, and despite the fact that she is very different from him, he spends his life trying to find her and be with her. He also loves the woman in pink lame. Describe how X's relationships to C and the woman in pink lame complement one another.