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 Cunégonde?) 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 a pink lamé 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 (á 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 with 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.