“Lookabout people. Beef me overlong and I groundbound you express. Down down down you go down and I be bottomed out set to catch. Snatch your whispers and tape what plays then hit rewind and scream you to sleep, siren you ass and then ex you proper. Lookabout all you. Spec your mirror and there I be. Crazy evilness be my design if that’s what needs wearing. All people herebound be evil-souled heartside, no ho they sweet talk. Shove do push and push do shove and everybody in this world leave lovelost hereafter. Lookabout. Chase me if you want. Funnyface me if you keen but mark this when I go chasing I go catching. Eye cautious when you step out people cause I be running streetwild come nightside and nobody safes when I ride. I bite. Can’t cut me now. Can’t fuck me now. Can’t hurt me now. No more. No more.”
‘Random Acts Of Senseless Violence’ is the most brutal, the most disturbingly prescient and the downright best work of dystopian fiction I’ve read in a while. It’s a great piece of writing, imbued with enjoyable future slang. It’s also a reminder of what a powerful tool SF can be to engage with issues in the real world. Although it was written in the 90s and is clearly – vividly – set in a pre-gentrification New York, its setting of a world where capitalism in hyperdrive has lead to economic and social collapse is distressingly familiar.
Our viewpoint into this world is Lola Hart, a smart and level-headed 12 year old girl in a lower middle class family who receives a diary for her birthday. Due to an increased difficulty in finding jobs in their own field and escalating debt, her family is forced to move from their nice middle class house to a poorer area. What follows is a process of education and transformation, as Lola discovers just how sheltered her life has been up until this point, and that she needs to adapt to her new surroundings in order to survive. News events previously confined to the TV screen, such as mass riots, feral gangs roaming the neighbourhood or the army occupying the streets, has become an unavoidable part of her daily life. Five presidents are assassinated in one year, the economic recession becomes so bad the government decides to print new denominations of money, and Lola’s parents are hopeless at saving money and supporting their children. While her father works himself to an early grave, her mother sedates herself and her sister withdraws, Lola adapts and survives.
Womack uses the framing device of Lola’s diary very well. It’s a great way to really get inside the protagonist’s head, and you can mark her progress as her voice mutates from standard English bursting with enthusiasm and grammatical errors as you might expect from a child, to the hard future slang she learns off the street with her new friends. The future slang is so good I almost wish the whole book was written like this, in the manner of A Clockwork Orange or Riddley Walker, but the cumulative effect of experiencing the change is worth Womack opening the book normally. Too the point, choppy and violent, with a lot of plausible-deniability-providing passives for verbs, the slang actually tells you a fair bit about the people who use it, and is just a whole lot of fun. However the emotional range Womack is able to convey, with and without the slang, is what is truly impressive. By the book’s devastating ending, Lola sounds heartbreakingly world-weary for anyone, let alone a child of 12.
‘Random Acts Of Senseless Violence’ is also noticeable for its natural and positive portrayal of the lesbian relationship between Lola and her friend Izzy, and Izzy’s relationship with Jude. Izzy and Jude are African American girls around Lola’s age whose gang she falls in with when her family moves. Their friendship and relationship is never portrayed as anything other than loving and supportive, and they are engaging and well-rounded characters in their own right. Womack also deftly subverts any snobbery, having them reveal just how smart and ambitious they are in a game of make believe that echoes one played with Lola’s public school friends at the beginning of the novel. Lola’s old friends come off as petty, pampered and narrow-minded by comparison.
It is impossible to talk about this book without mentioning Womack’s Manhattan. The city is evoked as vividly and as graphically as Delany’s Bellona, yet any mythic allure is utterly seeped in griminess and seediness. I cannot think of any other novel, let alone SF novel, that so intentionally drags the reader down the roughest of back alleys to expose the heart of corruption. This is beautifully reflected in the world of politics, the conniving politicians, and the implied arranged assassinations. The sleaze of late Rome is conjured up by how the succession of forgettable presidents, king for a day, step up to power and profess to be sorry about the death of their predecessor and exert ever more insane and draconian laws, like so many rival gangsters in The Pit.
Lola needs to be adaptable in order to survive the book. Over the course of the narrative Womack really puts her through the shredder. Her father dies, cutting off the family’s main source of income to boot, her mother becomes increasingly ill, her sister is put into the care of her horrid, snobby aunt Chrissie and Lola’s increasingly erratic behaviour drives Izzy away from her and back into Jude’s arms. As she says, “The world brutalizes however you live it whatever you do.” Her adaptability allows her to continue to survive despite all this, but at the cost of her previous identity. Ultimately there has to be a line somewhere. Jude and Izzy understand this because they grew up with the street, Lola is new to it so she has a harder time appreciating it. Hence how the ‘random senselessness’ comes into it; Jude and Izzy are frequently violent, but always for a reason. They steal but they dupe rather than bludgeon the victim, they take revenge for transgressions against them but it has to be personal and the other person has to understand why it is you are doing this to them. To be more than the dreaded DCons, the bogey men of this world, you have to be able to rationalise your actions. In times of chaos that line is even more important, and Lola crosses it when she brutally murders her dad’s old boss. Womack plays a nice sleight of hand here, because the boss really is an odious little shit and you are gunning for Lola to take her revenge, but when her friends call her out for it you realise basically they’re right. Lola has broken the code of the street, so she must become an outcast. The book ends where it does because she recognises this and actively casts off her diary, the last vestige of her old personality.