Tuesday, October 22, 2013


I am fairly certain that Jack Womack is not now nor ever has been a twelve-year-old girl, but Random Acts of Senseless Violence could not be used as evidence to prove this. Indeed, it is the finest literary drag act -- not just in gender, but also in generational drag, actually* -- that I have seen since Gene Wolfe's Pandora by Holly Hollander. And really, in terms of the genius of the narrative voice, these two novels are comparable.

But whereas Wolfe's protagonist-narrator confounds and misleads and imposes her own perceptions on the reader, Womack's Lola Hart feels like an fairly trustworthy and rational guide to her disintegrating world, down whose socio-economic rungs she and her privileged bourgeois-bohemian family plunge even as the rest of society comes apart in a near-future Manhattan that surely feels more plausible now than it did in the 1990s when this book was first published. This even as she herself degenerates, as I'll discuss some more below.

The reader is meant to assume the role of Lola's diary, whom Lola addresses as Anne, thus evoking thoughts of Anne Frank, who addressed her own diary as Kitty and treated it as a person much the way Lola does here; in fact Random Acts of Senseless Violence could, weirdly enough, be thought of as the offspring of Diary of a Young Girl and A Clockwork Orange, as much as it can a punk Pandora by Holly Hollander horrifying as that thought might seem. This is because while the early pages and the general premise seem to be more or less setting up our heroine as a victim the way Anne Frank was a victim, this is not a narrative of hope and perseverance through adversity. Rather, it's a sort of precursor to Breaking Bad in that we are watching a good character degenerate right along with her society; the violent acts to come are mostly going be perpetuated by, rather than on, Lola. That she is left with little choice is abundantly clear. Lola is still a victim, but not a blameless one.

But then again, maybe if Anne Frank met up with some toughs like Lola's friends in the slummy new neighborhood to which Lola's family is forced to move, Anne might have wound up going on the odd Nazi-beatin' rampage and going out in a blaze of gory (no, that is not a typo) instead of dying of Typhus in a concentration camp? Who knows?

At any rate, watching Lola transform from bright, friendly private school student to slang-slinging little thug is horrifying and fascinating and feels woefully inevitable once she's adjusted to her new surroundings. It's also horrifyingly plausible, given how prescient the novel's near-future setting turns out to have been; I had to remind myself often that this book was written before 9/11, before the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis, before the Occupy movement and the latest national debt brinksmanship and federal government shutdown. Like John Brunner before him, Jack Womack has a scary crystal ball sitting in front of him -- only his prophecies have yet to manifest as self-denying ones.

But this isn't just a descent into the titular violence; Lola is on the verge of womanhood with all of the issues that can bring, including those of sexuality and potential homosexuality; Lola spends a fair amount of the novel wrestling with these issues and her sexual attraction to some of her girl friends, giving us just the odd glimpse into the rest of society's doings -- Presidential assassinations, Army mobilizations in urban areas, recoinage, minor stuff like that -- as a mere backdrop to her struggles. As any tweenage girl might, when confiding in her diary. The reader thus struggles between annoyance at and sympathy for her self-absorption as the reader tries to see around Lola to the world beyond in all its decay and violence.

Which is, of course, the point.

The result is, like a John Brunner novel, anything but a comfortable read, but it's a powerful one, and not one to be missed, deadhead.

*Regarding this, see the below Twitter exchange between the author and I (the day I'm not thrilled to pieces when an author I admire engages me on Twitter, I'll know I'm done with the internet):

 So what he's saying, in his pleasantly modest way, is that he's actually just a freaking genius. Which I totally believe.

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