on 7 April 2014
Womack's story of a near future world on the brink of disaster is cleverly told through the pages of a 12 year old school girl's diary. Covering just a few months Lola tells of the changes she experiences in her home town Manhattan, having to move from her comfortable middle class suburban apartment to a rough part of the city and being shunned by her classmates for her assumed lesbian proclivity Lola is the only one of her family who does what she needs to do to survive - she adapts. Her younger sister, whom we know used to be close to her sister, becomes more and more unable to cope fearing not only the changing world outside but also her own sister. Lola's x-hippie style parents; a kind and loving but self-medicating mother and a father who now has to work long hours at a local bookstore for a merciless tyrant, have, we are told, not been good with money and it is hinted they may be partially to blame for the denuded circumstances that the Hart family find themselves in. The apparent acceptance and weakness of the other family members serves to enhance Lola's strength, as she makes new friends within the rough 'street' neighbourhood and learns that things are not going to go back to how they are anytime soon. The use of the diary form enables us to view the action in the past tense but also gives us access to Lola's true feelings and fears and reminds us that she is a 12 year old girl, something which it is easy to forget as you hear how she spends her days with little parental supervision and often in situations where her safety is threatened as the society around her descends into chaos and anarchy.
The changes in Lola's character as her survival instincts take over and she sets to right some of the wrongs done to her are reinforced by the degeneration of the language she uses but Womack does this deftly and you don't find yourself struggling to much with the recurring phrases and abbreviated sentence constructions. I particularly liked the use of people going 'post office' which she later explains is a bit like when someone working in a post office goes crazy and kills everyone! There are many other gems to look out for. Definitely a good choice for a book club read.
on 22 October 1998
The best Womack book, this is the diary written by a 12-year-old middle-upper-class girl up since the world economy collapses. You're lead through her family's economic downfall and her psychological reactions in an undoubtedly exaggerated but nonetheless believable world. The girl herself is a great character, a true survivor, while the author achieves success in writing about hell in a dispassionate manner. I'd recommend it strongly to anyone who is a little pessimistic about the future.
The book is set in Manhattan sometime around about the present day. Something has happened which has turned society on its head and violence rules!
Lola is a 12 year old girl, who lives a traditionally middle class life. Her parents are a writer and a teacher but are both struggling hard to survive in the chaos surrounding them. Lola and her sister still attend a private school in the city but when they have to move deeper into the city to save rent, life gets more difficult.
There is an obvious comparison to Anne Franks diary which was unexpected having read the blurb for the book. Here we have a young girl, immersed in her relationships with friends and beginning to find her way sexually who lives in a world of terror which she cannot properly comprehend - she even calls her diary "Anne".
As Lola adapts to her surroundings she slips more into using a "street" dialogue which makes the book feel very real but does make it quite difficult to read at some points. Overall the book gets much darker and ends up being a depressing account which is hard to read.
The main problem I had with the book was the characters. I don't mind that none of them are likeable but I did struggle with engaging in any way with any of them. The easiest ones for me should have been Lola's parents but they were just impossible to believe - they both had problems but I fail to imagine that they would not have been able to look after their children in a better way.
On a positive, I found that the book encourages thought about the lives that we all live. How close is our society to these conditions thinking about the recent riots in the UK? How many people live in wartorn cities around the world today?
This is another great addition to the sci fi masterworks, although it sort of reads more like brutal realist literature to be honest, the themes dealt with include urban decay, class struggles, racial tensions and social crisis and it is all told from the first person perspective of a twelve year old white girl who has received a diary for her birthday.
I was reminded of another sci fi masteworks when reading this Flowers for Algernon while reading this because the narrative style is similar, it is a diary format, driven along by the protagonist and charting a change in their character as it does so. Only while Flowers of Algernon's protagonist develops from learning disabled to genius and back again the protagonist in Random Acts of Senseless Violence develops from middle class to a murderous street speaking lumpenproletarian. There are other subplots or story arcs to do with developing sexual identity and self-acceptance which I thought were done well and handled proportionately and also with good characterisation, the author's character doesnt at any point break out into erudite updates much more mature than her chronological age. The descent into street speak is done well too, it can be a little grating and bothered me to read it a little but not so much that I was deterred from reading but it does not occur suddenly and keeps a pace with what I imagine is the transformation of the protagonist's character from what she was to what she is becoming.
I really felt for all of the characters in the book, none of them are one dimensional and the author was pretty unflinching in dealing with what I felt would be logical conclusions or their individual fate. Its possible to draw out considerations of how the social attitudes of each of them had been formed or their responses to events as they unfolded. Interesting, to me at least, was the extent to which some of the attitudes of those who were already on the bottom of the social hierarchy resembled those who clearly were not, their relationships may still have been one of exploitation by the corporate overlords but they shared a world view, that was clear, it also worked to their advantage as I believe it would.
This was reflected in the behaviour which gives the novel its title, while from the perspective of the injured party, our protagonist, and the character most "displaced" by events, their behaviour was perfectly logical (and I would suggest a consequence of the class struggles going on around them even if they wouldnt know to call it what it was) from that of their friends it wasnt. Its possible to speculate that the friends took what had happened to the protagonist and their family as "just one of those things" which they'd been experiencing all along and expected, run of the mill, not an affront warranting avenging violence.
Other people have commented already upon how this supposedly dystopian novel does resemble the world today, I think that can be an exaggeration, it reflects parts of the world I'm sure and possibly something more perrenial, the "bad parts of town" and unsympathetic social divisions have always existed in one shape or another. One thing I will say is that this author does a great job of bringing it into print. The mix of doomed innocent and menaced experience is compelling to read. Recommended.
I often struggle with 'classic' science fiction. During my formative fiction reading years, around 1990, I found it dry and difficult to absorb. By classic I'm talking about the stuff my Dad used to read. Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson; books written in 60s and 70s. I found Random Acts similarly hard to find a way into. It's technically accomplished, but it didn't grab me. Reading it was an exercise in putting one word after the other, to build a story, rather being flung headlong into the narrative. It reminded me of reading those 'old' novels again. Curiously, it was written in 1993. It was cutting edge at the time I struggled with old masterworks. I think 20 year old me would probably have hated this book.
Current dystopian fiction is rarely character based. It tends to be plucky characters (teenagers) sticking it to the man. They turn over on the back of rebellion and the reclaiming of freedoms. Whilst the central protagonists are agents of great change, they themselves usually change very little. Characters in the modern dystopia are born ready for their roles. Womack's treatment is altogether different. It's far more character driven. It's also set on our side of the downfall. No single, evil megalomaniac has set up the world to be unfair. The world is merely unequal. The privileged few live in isolated luxury, whilst the majority of the masses live in penury. Sound familiar?
The premise of the novel could have been taken from any number of post-austerity documentaries about middle class, white collar families, who suddenly find themselves jobless and all but unemployable. Lola Hart is a middle class girl, whose writer parents buy her a diary for her birthday. She goes to a private school and lives in a large apartment in Manhattan. As the novel opens we learn that all is not well in the rest of New York and the USA but, for now, Manhattan stays wide awake in splendid isolation.
As Lola writes in her diary, we see world affairs and the state of her home life. Wars and riots are given brief tantalising mentions, the minutiae of the dinner table and playground politics a whole lot more. A short way into the novel, Lola's parents are forced to relocate northwards to the fringes of Harlem. Suddenly Lola and her sister a forced to commute miles across the city in order to get to school. The change in postcode (ZIP!), makes them social pariahs amongst their classmates. Beyond that, Lola wrestles with her awakening sexuality, giving the novel an additional personal dimension. There are many struggles going on here.
The most remarkable thing about Random Acts is its narrative voice. As Lola's view of the world shifts, so does her language. The subtle shift in language is one of the novel's key devices. Having said that, I wasn't totally convinced. Firstly, speaking in a patois is one thing, children readily ape the mannerisms of their peers, but I'm not sure this translates so smoothly into their written language. The shift seemed too fast for me.
Another problem I often have with diary based novels is the level of detail recalled about dialogue and events. I'm not sure people really record their conversations word for word when they write them down. Even if they could remember them fully, I think only a general sense of the dialogue is what would be recorded, with maybe one or two choice quotes. This however is a technical point, and doesn't really interfere with the novel's enjoyment.
But did I enjoy it? Well, the story is very slow. Very little happens. It's descent by degrees. I certainly wasn't urgently compelled to read on. The introduction of dialect didn't help me. It's something I often struggle with. Rare is the novel where I become so caught up in altered speech, that I cease to notice. It was only on finishing the book that I appreciated how good it is. The novel has a left-wing bias; the have-nots are portrayed an underclass, left to battle amongst themselves whilst the rich live untouched. The book may be twenty years old but its still massively relevant, perhaps now more so than ever.
Womack offers a strong position on the nature vs nurture debate. All those who think those in poverty are born lazy, idle and criminal would do well to read this book. It's as poignant decline as you are ever likely to read. So whilst at times I found the book a bit boring, I'm so glad I finished it. It's one of those books that worms its way beneath your skin. Even now, days after having read it, little flashes of it return. It's a clever and disturbing chronicle of a personal downfall. It also chimes scarily with the current political climate. It would make a great book club book; there is lots to discuss here. This book is the first of Womack's Dryco series, and whilst it's much the easiest to get hold of, I will definitely be trying to track down at least one more to see what else he has to say.
on 13 December 2014
First published in 1993, this is a prophetic and disturbing look at an America five minutes into the future in which growing inequalities have reduced society to two cohorts: the minority made up of the wealthy and ultra rich and the vast majority of the ultra poor. Womack describes the death of the American Dream. There are no more Horatio Alger 'rags to riches' life stories. All such hopes have been extinguished in a world in which the middle-classes are being hollowed-out and slipping inexorably into the underclass. Lola Hart is a nice middle-class girl at an expensive private school but suddenly she finds that she and her family have to fight tooth and claw to survive in the New York underclass or pay the consequences. Remarkably, Womack predicts the start of the Occupy movement and he describes the savage backlash to crush it by the establishment. This book could not be more topical, given the demonstrations and civil unrest in US cities over ethnic minority deaths during police arrests. An OECD report 'Focus on Inequality and Growth' of 9 December 2014 describes how growing inequalities in society have actually stunted economic growth, contrary to the received wisdom of the 80's and 90's that 'greed is good' and that inequality fuels growth. If all that is not enough, Womack is William Gibson's favourite author and one can understand why: This is not just another dystopian SF yarn but a highly literate and painful glimpse into a possible near future. It's also a cracking story.
on 4 October 2014
Difficult to decide whether to give this five stars, because I don't think it fully works as a stand-alone novel, despite being the first in the Dryco/Ambient series timeline and pretty self-contained as far as the plot goes. I was put off by the fairly relentless misery: however there is much more of a point to this than is altogether clear from just this one instalment, but it's not easy to say why without spoilers for later volumes.
Having said that, I was sufficiently impressed by this very well written book to go on to subsequent parts of the series, which I then devoured one after another. The series is definitely more than the sum of its parts and well worth reading in its entirety; it also goes in a direction you would definitely not anticipate from RAoSV alone.
In terms of publication order this is actually one of the later volumes in the series, and reflects a distinct maturing and deepening in Jack Womack's art since he began it.
Like most readers I would strongly advise reading the series in timeline order, starting here. Don't be too put off by the misery: though the Dryco world is truly grim, the series as a whole has much more to say about it than appears here.