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.
"It's a story about a kid trying to do something hard. Trying beyond his endurance to do a man's work well, and to survive."
"Man's work?" said the airplane woman. "That's sexist! And the dead mule/father motif trivializes and excludes women."
"Is the dead mule a symbol of something?"
"It's Southern Fiction," said a young man with pursed lips and studious glasses who seemed to be positioning himself as the discussion leader, "which by definition has dead mules in it."
Everybody in the marketing survey group nodded.
Who ever would have thought, so many centuries after Voltaire, so many decades after Vonnegut, we would all still be smoking the same "best of all possible worlds" stuff that was going around before the enlightenment? Well, Cates for one.
And I'm glad of it. Oh, and for extra credit, what country do you think Wonderland is supposed to be?
'Til next time...