Monday, January 26, 2015

Random Acts of Senseless Violence


       My wish for this year is that just once, just one time, just for a second, there would be a Jack Womack book that I could actually recommend to people. Because he's a good author. And as I slowly maneuver my way through the DryCo books, I do like them quite a bit. The futurespeak isn't completely impenetrable, the plots are intriguing and kind of freaky, and there's something very organic about the world of the books. 

But the ones I've read, I can't recommend. 

                      Random Acts of Senseless Violence doesn't have the problems of Going Going Gone, though. It's technically the first book in the series chronologically, it's written for the most part in conventional language instead of barely-coherent hipster slang, it doesn't slam the doors on any of the worlds it creates, and for the most part, it's a tense, engaging read that posits a near-future United States where society is quickly crumbling and then sticks to it. It manages some moments of intense black humor, memorable characters, and one of the most engaging and human-feeling female leads I've read in years. This is a book that should be reprinted in classic editions and substituted in high schools instead of The Catcher in the Rye, and read and analyzed alongside A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker.* This is, by all metrics I have available, an objectively good book.

                       But if I tell you to read this book, I do so with the knowledge it will hold you down and punch your lights out. It will attack you on pure lizard-brain instinct and punch you in the gut so hard and so often it'll become a second career. This is to dystopian literature what Straw Dogs was to romantic movies. 

And I loved every second of it.

More, as always, below.

"Mama says I have a night mind."
- Lola "Booz" Hart

And it is literally all downhill from there. Actually, no, let me explain. 

                         Random Acts of Senseless Violence begins on Lola Hart's twelfth birthday. Lola's parents give her a bunch of the usual things-- new clothes, some new books, other various presents-- but most notable among the presents is Lola's new diary, which she names Anne. The book unfolds in diary entry after diary entry as Lola goes out for ice cream with her family, attends her upper-crust private school in Manhattan with her friends, and goes out to the various places in the city along the familiar, clean, reliable paths. Her mother and father are a literature professor and a television writer, respectively, and while they aren't doing terribly well, they're doing well enough they don't have to worry about money or losing their modest apartment. In fact, the only indication that anything is going wrong is that there seem to be small outbreaks of violence throughout the city, but since these are nowhere near the Harts, it's barely worth Lola's notice. She's too busy wondering why her friend Katherine is asking her weird questions and wants to practice kissing. And why her more brash friend Lori seems hostile towards the two of them, and especially Lola. 

                    But soon the book takes a turn for the worse as the Hart parents lose their jobs due to the continual deterioration of the government and infrastructure. With no need for the arts, a TV writer and an English professor are out of work, and so the Hart parents try to make ends meet by editing manuscripts and trying to write better stories. Finally, Mr. Hart gets a job at a bookstore working for a cantankerous and possibly psychotic man named Mossbacher, and the entire family moves to Harlem. Within two days, they've lost most of their belongings and Lola's mother is upping her medication count. Thankfully, Lola's father managed to pay off her tuition, so she still gets to go to school with her friends, but as she is living in what they so eloquently refer to as "Cracktown", it puts a strain on things. 

                 Lola's life is about to get a lot worse, though, not through any fault of her own but the fault of an uncaring system as it desperately clings to life. Despite new friends, Lola will have to learn a new language, a new set of social rules to live by, and even those she might leave behind as she and her family struggle to keep their heads above water and keep what little they have left.

                   When discussing the book with people outside this blog, I used the term "dystopian horror novel", and I stick to it, because it's an absolutely wrenching read, and because it's more horror novel than anything else. I was genuinely afraid while reading the book, not just because Random Acts of Senseless Violence avoids giving its hero even a little hope that things will be different (Lola can tell her mother is lying when she says that they'll be back at their old apartment someday), but because the horror was so commonplace and could literally happen to anyone. All of the worst events are simply a combination of bad luck and bad timing, starting with the Hart parents unable to get jobs that let them keep their lifestyle and that of their children. It's the plausibility and the fact that the conflicts and terrors in the novel are all very real that makes this more terrifying than anything else I've read in the past few months. 

                    By grounding it in the first-person narration of a twelve year old girl, and one that starts the book as an optimistic and precocious young woman, the horror is all that nastier, too. In the beginning of the book, as things start to go bad, Lola has no idea what's going on. She's a fairly innocent child who doesn't understand much of anything. The earlier entries in her diary talk about things like going to an ice cream parlor and the toy store on her birthday, talking about boys with her friends, and when the horror enters, it's either trivial or something Lola can't even comprehend. As the book continues Lola's gradual descent into what can only be described as "hell", the language she uses slowly transforms more and more to match the street, and the tone of the novel becomes harder, harsher. It helps that Lola's a very human presence, and very believably written. Her family even acts like a family, and I loved that Lola used the euphemism of "a visit from Granny" or just "Granny" to describe her periods. It seemed so personal, and the exact sort of thing an innocent would use to describe something like that. Throughout the book, she recognizes that her mother's drugs put her her mother in a stupor, but doesn't actually go into detail about how. It's the same incomprehension level of Koko, though I do admit it works better here.

                   And finally, the world of NYC in the near-future is an immersive and vibrant one. The inhabitants have their own slang, their own legends, and even their own boogeyman in the form of violent-yet-unseen DCons. "Joining the DCons" seems to be a euphemism for being lost to the lower areas of New York and swallowed up by the city, the way that someone could be lost to any city. It's something that adds a certain element that I really liked. I felt connected, brought further in. As the slang starts to proliferate, the book's language breaking down into street-speak as the heroine does and as the world around her crumbles. There are also some darkly comic moments that help inform the setting, like when the angry citizens of the decaying US keep killing the President every time a new one is appointed, or Lola's crazy religious aunt who continues to feel justified as the country slides down the tubes. There are also some moments of setting-based horror, as well (What did they do to poor Lori at Kure-A-Kid? And why does everyone think it's better?).

                   In the end, what you have is a violent, visceral, and terrifying book about a girl and her friends being broken both by the system and by the decay of society to the point of almost feral mental deterioration, and it is one of the best things I've read. Not because of all of that, but because Womack makes it terrifying in a way that A Clockwork Orange** only made surreal and unnerving. Despite all of this, the book is incredibly readable and does manage to make you care about these people getting crushed, only to see their brief glimmers of hope slowly extinguished. I am not sorry I read it, although I'm not sure I would ever read it again, knowing now that it is the first book to cause lingering disturbance since Athena Villaverde's Clockwork Girl, a book that I find myself referencing far too often. You should read this book. And then have a nice comedy to read directly afterwards. I myself and the staff at Geek Rage/Strange Library Media recommend either a Tim Dorsey book, or if you want something without violent criminals, The Good Fairies of New York

I leave you know with a quote from one of the greatest philosophers and geniuses of our time:

"All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day."

Motorman by David Ohle

- The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
- Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh

*Although I suppose the problem with those books would be that they've been analyzed so much that any possible impact the stories have is now lost...

**I should really ditch the Womack/Burgess comparisons, but no one else has really attempted what they did, and while Russell Hoban comes close, Riddley Walker is a little too pastoral and lyrical. Despite the baby-eating***. 

***Yes, there's at least one baby that gets eaten in Riddley Walker. I got that far before I got sidetracked.

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