By David Allan Cates (Steerforth Press, 141 pages, $17.95)

If there's anything at all like a just or benevolent God who has any power whatsoever, how can suffering and injustice exist? Should we just file all potentially shitty things under "learning experiences" we're better off for having and call this the best of all possible worlds? Voltaire's weigh-in on the problem of evil, Candide, or Optimism, attacked the idea of philosophical optimism with such devastation and wisdom that the pithy, 100-page book has been the cause of countless philosophy seminars and midlife crises since its debut in 1758. David Allan Cates' re-imagining of Candide, the just-published X Out of Wonderland, substitutes the Voltairean idea of ultimate justice despite evil for an examination of the 21st-century ideal—as stipulated by the Global Free Market—of ultimate economic justice, despite rampant inequality. The alleged sources of comfort in Cates' world are "choice" and "mobility" (that's consumer-speak for "free will").

The trials in Wonderland (read: U.S.A.) are told through the eyes of the main character, X, who becomes unemployed, loses his house to a storm and discovers his insurance company has gone bankrupt—and that's all before page 9. Next, a series of increasingly bizarre, Job-like cataclysms test X's faith in the idea that he'll ever have financial security (or a stable life) again. Despite the book's slender length, Cates packs in quite a story, thanks to a bare-bones writing style devoid of florid description or proper nouns, making Wonderland read like a Kafkaesque rendition of George Orwell's 1984. X works as a shoestring dyer; X sells lime vodka; X joins the Army; X is forced to whip out his old adage, "I'm stubbornly optimistic. Because no matter how I might feel personally, it's a good system in the long run," more than a few times. This, despite natural disasters, unfair practices, arbitrary decisions made by "loved ones," and other segues into bad luck that no amount of hard work could have possibly avoided.

It would be great if hard work always led to success, but the occasional episode of fan hit by shit cannot be avoided. And yet, when there is nothing else left, there is always hope. Whether or not that's any comfort in an insanely unjust system like capitalism is another story. And X Out of Wonderland, that's yet another story, one well worth checking out.

Cates reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Tuesday, Nov. 15. Free.