CW: extinction event-level pandemic
For all intents and purposes, the world ended years ago. A virus wiped out virtually every last human. Zeke knows. Not only has he buried the victims he knew from his small Montana town, he passes by the countless remains of the other nameless, faceless dead every time he goes foraging. Even the shortwave radio Zeke uses to check band after band for any sign or signal of life is a constant reminder that maybe…he is literally the very last man on earth. Or he thought he was until, on the first big snow storm of the season, an attractive man crawls, bleeding, onto Zeke’s doorstep.
When a pack of wild dogs attacks, Nathan is irate that his travel companion, Andy, disappears rather than help fend off the starved animals. Nathan suffers several vicious bites, but manages to survive. When Andy shows his face again, Nathan forgets his anger, glad for both Andy’s company and the encouragement he gives Nathan to push through the pain to follow fresh snowmobile tracks in the newly fallen snow. The tracks lead to a cozy cabin and, if Nathan’s not completely lost his mind, a fine specimen of a man. Not that there’s a lot Nathan can do about the attraction even if, by some miracle, it is mutual: Nathan is half delirious with pain and blood loss. It also doesn’t help that this man’s home, with stacks upon stacks of things piled throughout the house, triggers some intense responses from Nathan’s obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Wonderland is a novella set deep in rural Montana in the winter. And, as the content warning mentions, it takes place in a world where humans have been utterly decimated by an uncontrolled virus. Readers who are looking for an escape from the Covid pandemic will probably want to look elsewhere. That said, in Wonderland’s version of dystopia, the virus seems to have turned its victims into lust-crazed maniacs who…literally fuck themselves to death. I thought it was curious that Nathan seems to have been infected in the past, but survived. This tidbit didn’t seem to have any real bearing on his health in the story, though it did raise specters of danger for Zeke, who had not been infected. As far as disaster plotlines go, there were just enough details about the virus and how it played out to make it interesting without having to devolve into long flashbacks or other narration. Rather, there are a few summaries that touch on the possibility of a man-made catastrophe and the seemingly instantaneous, global spread that remind me of contemporary conspiracy theories.
Personally, I wasn’t really sold on the romance in the story. It’s a novella and the pacing is such that we are introduced to Zeke alone at first, getting a glimpse into how he has learned to survive post-humanity. Then we shift to Nathan, who’s walking from Vermont to Vancouver, as he comes across the town where Zeke lives. With the dog attack, the book is probably half over before these two actually have a lucid, coherent conversation. But that doesn’t stop these two from enjoying a fast-paced, insta-love type deal. I can appreciate the novelty Zeke and Nathan might feel at finding one more person alive and well, and gosh darn it, gay to boot. Insofar as that goes, I think this is the most feel-good element of the book—and why not?
In the short time we have with the characters, though, I think Zeke is depicted as a delightfully good soul. Sure, he’s admittedly let himself go (he hasn’t bathed in about a month and cuts off his hair/beard rather than attempt to tame it), but he’s carved out a bit of normalcy in an otherwise empty world. He has routines, like having a glass of wine while reading science fiction. He goes into town to pick through the remaining canned goods. He does not hesitate in the least when the bloody and delirious Nathan crawls up on his porch. Zeke sweetly sees to Nathan’s immediate needs: cleaning the bites, providing medicine foraged from the drug store, going out in a blizzard to get better drugs, and offering him food. Nathan also seems equally pleasant, but two elements about him stand out. Of course, there is the OCD that interferes with his ability to feel comfortable in the first real human home he’s inhabited for about 18 months. Then, there is his relationship with Andy. This character turned into a bit of a surprise for me, but I want to eschew spoilers. I will say, after the first two or three scenes with Andy, I was wondering if this character was a friend, a frenemy, an imaginary friend, a fairweather friend, or even some kind of serial killer. Andy’s popping up here and there certainly added some thriller-type interest to the story.
Finally, the story is set around Christmas time. Zeke has an old calendar he can use to keep track of what date it is, at least generally. I feel like the calendar presented a bit of a continuity error as there were times when it seemed like the prose was indicating this was a calendar from last year and other times when it seemed like it was a calendar from years ago. Still, when Nathan shows up and Zeke stumbles across some holiday decorations, the book takes on a quirky holiday feel. Personally, I didn’t think the soft emphasis on Christmas really added anything. It was awkward when Zeke presents Nathan with a gift but Nathan has nothing. They’ve been together a few days at best by that point and their backgrounds (Zeke still living in the home I believe he grew up in; Nathan having spent the last 18 months walking) made this one-sided gift exchange feel really contrived…but, well, if dystopian holiday traditions are your bag, then you’re in luck.
Overall, I think this story features sweet characters. I liked that Zeke gets a bit of a backstory regarding his relationship with his (deceased) parents. Nathan’s past focuses more on his relationship with being diagnosed as OCD. There was even a brief discussion about how neurodivergence may shape who Nathan is and the idea that if he were neurotypical, he might not be the same person. All wrapped up in a winter wonderland sans 99.99% of all other humans with a bit of Christmas kitsch and a happy for now ending.