This title is up on my reading list from What Makes This Book So Great though it’s arguable whether it even counts as science-fiction. I mentioned in the earlier post about how Jo Walton thought it odd that this book failed to achieve much success when it was first released yet immediately upon reading it, one quickly realizes that it is a work that deserves to be taken seriously.
The entire book is presented as entries of the diary of a 12-year-old girl, Lola Hart, who lives in Manhattan. At the beginning of the story, Lola is clearly upper middle class. Her father is a freelance Hollywood scriptwriter, her mother an untenured professor, she goes to a private school and the family including a younger sister live in a respectable neighborhood. Times are bad however. The economy is in the dumps, crime is rife and the politicians are helpless to do anything about it. As the state of the country deteriorates, with one President after another getting assassinated, so does the fortunes of the Hart family. Lola’s friends abandon her when her family is forced to live in an apartment in a cheaper area and she takes up with new, non-white friends. Her father is forced to work at a bookshop where the owner abuses him while her mother becomes doped up on psychiatric medications. Lola learns that her friends earn cash through petty crime and she discovers a violent, angry streak inside of herself, causing her sister to become fearful of her. At the same time, she also experiments with lesbian sex with her new friends.
It doesn’t take long to figure out which direction the book is going in and once I did, I found it pretty tough to keep reading. That’s not because it’s badly written as it is indeed a very engaging account. Rather one soon realizes that it’s going to all about the steady and inevitable decline of a middle class that is never going to end well and when every page brings a new humiliation or degradation, it makes it hard to keep turning them. The pain is all the more acute as the later tragedies are foreshadowed by small sacrifices mad on the part of the parents who try to hide how bad things are getting from the children, ordering salads for themselves in a restaurant for example while buying heart meals for the two girls. A powerful moment is when Lola realizes that she is the one who must reassure her mother that everything is alright when they are manifestly not as her mother becomes ever more dependent on her medication.
As this is a very personal story of a young girl, we only get very brief glimpses of the world at large. We don’t know for example exactly why the US has gone to shit and what the state of the rest of the world is. I’m guessing that those are actually familiar with the geography of Manhattan will feel some additional resonance as much of Lola’s story takes place in the streets. Still, there are plenty of clues to fill in the blanks and the descriptions are vivid. One of the most interesting things is how Lola’s use of language changes over time. Her earliest diary entries are written in standard American English but over time as she hangs out more with her new gang, she uses more and more slang until at the end it’s barely recognizable as standard English at all. As far as I can tell, Womack invented all of these new slang terms himself. Due to the gradual introduction of the slang and from the context, it’s still for us to understand what Lola means and it works fantastically as a way to show how Lola’s world is changing.
I believe that this is formally part of Womack’s Dryco series and the other books flesh out more of this world, shedding light on what actually happened. Random Acts of Senseless Violence stands perfectly well on its own however and it’s hard to see how other books can add much to it. It’s a work that arouses strong emotions as we watch a girl from a privileged background descend into savagery while polite society crumbles all around her. It’s complex on multiple levels as Lola grapples with her sexuality as well as the fragility of her parents. In short, this is a gripping, serious novel that really the mainstream literary world should take notice of but I don’t think it’s science-fiction at all.