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Random Acts of Senseless Violence

February 17, 2014

We went to California in February and it rained the whole time…this, after months of drought.

It was forty degrees warmer than in Ohio, though, so I ventured out in the wet to ride on a cable car and walk around the Embarcadero and take a boat to Alcatraz with my friend Catriona. I think that Catriona and I were willing to take the tour of Alcatraz with each other because we trusted that the other one was not going to take too long in there—we expected it to be full of sad stories, and it was. There’s an audio tour of the prison, and I skipped some of the worst parts, going right to the library, which I figure must have been the only other thing besides the view that made prison life at all bearable.

The next day my friend Readers Guide drove to San Francisco in the rain to show me the city. We went to Ocean Beach, where I put my feet in the cold Pacific and we walked around the cliff beneath Cliff House and up to the end of the low tide beach, where we could see the remains of the Sutro Baths. Then, thoroughly soaked through from the driving rain, we had lunch at Louie’s, where it was so warm in contrast to how chilly it was getting outside that the windows steamed up. After lunch, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and to Golden Gate Park, where we walked through the puddles in a Japanese tea garden and went up in the deYoung observation tower. On the following day, she showed us around Berkeley and the University, and she and her husband took us to dinner at Chez Panisse, where together we tried a good selection of everything on the daily menu and pronounced it all delicious by polishing the plates.

There are a lot of homeless people in San Francisco, especially around the touristy bits, although policemen periodically push them back. I was thinking about Jack Womack’s novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which I’d read on the airplane on the way out because it was so highly recommended in Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. (See Walton’s review at Tor.com.) The novel is set in a Manhattan of the near future, and what’s so disturbing and fascinating about it is how near bits of that future can seem when you’re walking around a big city.

The main character of Random Acts of Senseless Violence is named Lola. She is turning twelve as the book begins and has been given a diary as a present. Lola lives on with her parents and a younger sister “on 86th Street near Park Avenue in New York City” and attends a private school for girls. She writes in her diary:
“I got a new bedroom for my birthday too. It’s not a surprise like my diary was. It’s not a new room but the maid’s old room. We had to let her go but I don’t know where she went….Mama and Daddy helped me move everything into my new room this morning after my new furniture came. I have a new bed and new lamp and new desk and chair. I also got new sweaters and shoes and a dictionary for school.”
She has two friends at school, Katherine and Lori, and she writes about them in the diary she names Anne.

The first thing that seems a bit different from our world is one of Lola’s younger sister’s toys. The sister’s nickname is Boob, and “Aunt Chrissie who lives in California sent it to her as a Hanukah present. My L’il Fetus is a doll baby that fits in a pack Boob ties around her stomach. When you press its button it kicks her like a real baby would. Mama and Daddy don’t like it but Boob loves it.” A little later, Lola talks about “an infomercial that shows pictures of dead babies in buckets while the narrator talks about liberal homosexual baby killers. It’s so gross but you just keep watching it because you can’t believe how disgusting it is. There’s one baby that looks like a codger with an axe in his head. They keep showing it till you want to heave but you keep watching….Mama’s sister Chrissie gives money to the Tombs of the Unborn Babies foundation and goes to protests constantly.”

Soon the little differences start to mount up. “After class we all had to get cholera shots because of the mess in the river from Long Island.” Lola’s friends have problems they can’t talk about, partly because Lola comes from a loving family and wouldn’t understand what is going on in her friends’ more dysfunctional families. As bill collectors begin to call and come by, however, Lola begins to understand some things: “I bet they spent the rent money on Hanukah and Christmas presents for us. I wonder how much all my new furniture and Boob’s stuff cost.” They move to a cheaper apartment in a worse part of town: “It’s a slum’ Boob said and Daddy said it wasn’t, it was student housing….Mama didn’t look very happy with the place but she didn’t say anything. I think she was doing more medication today than usual because she was very quiet and seemed to drift off all the time whenever she sat down….The buildings along Broadway where the campus is are all being strung up with barbed wire because the crime is so bad and the people at the gate looked like real policemen with machine guns like at the airport.”

The president keeps getting killed. The first time it happened, Lola got the day off of school, although “they buried the President a day sooner than they usually do because they couldn’t secure the Capitol enough to let him lie in state.”

The social contract continues to break down. One day Lola and her sister and mother get on the subway at rush hour: “The subway was so crowded it was hard to breathe. I got a seat and Boob sat on my lap and Mamma stood in front of us hanging onto the bar. Between 66th and 72nd Street the train stopped in the tunnel and the lights got dim and the air conditioning shut off. The conductor said something but the speaker was broken and he sounded like he was talking inside a drum. Then it got real quiet inside the car like it always does when the train stops. Suddenly a woman said ‘Watch your feet’ and a man said you watch. ‘I said you watch’ she said and he said his feet weren’t in the way it was her baby carriage. ‘My baby’s not in the way’ she said and he said the fuck it wasn’t. They started cursing each other back and forth and getting louder and louder. ‘Please quiet down’ another lady said and the man said fuck you too. ‘Don’t talk to me like that motherfucker’ the lady said and then a lot of people shouted no no and the crowd in our half of the car pushed back like they were being shoved and I thought Mama was going to fall on us. It was so crowded me and Boob couldn’t see what was happening. ‘He started it’ one of the ladies said and then everybody was saying be cool be cool. The crowd stopped crowding and some people muttered and everybody got quiet again. Then the second woman said ‘Dumbass motherfucker’ and people started screaming real loud and everyone started pushing into our half of the car like they were getting ready to come through the windows. Everyone was shouting no no don’t don’t and it must have worked because no one did. Then the lights and the air conditioning came back on and after a minute or so the train started up again. When it got to 72nd about half the people in our car got out and then it was quiet again so I think whoever was arguing got out too.”

Lola meets some girls from her new neighborhood, Iz and Jude and Weezie, and they save her from a gang of boys who use the fact that she’s wearing shorts on a ninety-degree day to feel her up and threaten worse. As they explain the situation “Streethangers after you cause they deadhead’ Jude said. ‘However you look. They fuck anything room temperature’ Iz said.”As Iz and Lola become better friends, Iz teaches her how to take care of herself. During one conversation about a local park, Iz warns Lola not to go there and tells her stories about why. “No Iz, truth me’ Lola says and she replies “Truthing plain.”

Lola is beginning to talk like her new friends when she is with them, but can still answer her father when he asks if she is unhappy in the new neighborhood by saying “I’m not as happy as I could be that’s all.” This is right before she goes to spend the night with Iz, whose mother won’t let her stay because Lola’s skin is too white, and the two girls run through a riot to get to Jude’s room in an abandoned building. The parents are drifting, assuming that Lola is as sheltered and safe as she was in her former neighborhood. Instead, she is learning that she can respond in kind when violence threatens. Her weekend activities include helping to deliver an expectant mother younger than herself to an older relative who subscribes to the hit-em-and-make-em-shut-up school of keeping children safe.

Lola, continually accused of being lesbian, isn’t old enough to be sure who she is attracted to, but she finally asks Iz “how do people know they love each other really” and gets the world-weary answer “if they bed together and nobody die, that’s love.”

With her father dead of overwork and her mother overdosing on tranquilizers, things get so bad that finally Lola’s mother agrees to send her sister to her Aunt Chrissie’s house: “We put Boob on the plane to San Francisco at the airport. Actually Boob put herself on the plane because the antiterrorist police wouldn’t let us terminal too far in. I wanted to word her this morning before she flew but I tonguetied and she kept forgetting making Mama double-check what she hauled so we never talked. I said I’d write her but I don’t know what I’ll say.”

Lola’s mother takes more tranquilizers, overdoses, and is sent home: “Mam says she missed me while she clinicked. She nearly comaed this morning till I walked her backforth and poured the coffee down her. Now she’s bedded eyeing ceilingways like if she looks long and hard enough she’ll viz what’s downcoming with time enough to duck.”

Lola herself has become a creature obsessed only with survival and revenge: “Shove do push and push do shove and everbody in this world leave lovelost hereafter” she thinks. She has become what she used to fear: “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.” And yet some of her final words are “Night night Anne” to her diary.

She is wild, lost, and unknowable, when months earlier we would have said she was the kind of twelve-year-old-girl we’re familiar with, one who would go on a tour of Alcatraz and feel overwhelmed by the horror, who would enjoy stepping on the stones across a stream at a Japanese garden and could use the right fork at a fancy restaurant. How far would any of us have to go before the policemen (blueboys, as she calls them) would begin to think that maybe we were the ones to be pushing back?

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2014 7:27 am

    That sounds disturbing and fascinating at the same time.

  2. February 17, 2014 8:03 am

    It’s so cool in speculative fiction (or any kind of fiction really) when things start out feeling normal, and then there begin to be false notes until you realize that something is really, really wrong. I was a bit put off by some of the slangy excerpts you’ve quoted, but Jo Walton says the author makes the transition seamless. Did you think that too? Fake slang is not generally one of my favorite things in this world.

    • February 19, 2014 11:44 am

      I do think the author makes the transition seamless. The way Lola uses language changes so gradually that I didn’t hear the notes as “false” until the key changed, and then I realized that it really is almost another language. It works even better than the language in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Riddick, or even A Clockwork Orange, with its Russian-flavored slang.
      Probably I quoted too much of it, because by the end I was enjoying it so much. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of scary in and of itself).

  3. February 17, 2014 1:50 pm

    Whoa. So not many puppies and butterflies and daisies?

    • February 19, 2014 11:45 am

      Care, you’ve put your finger on it in a weird way. There are puppies and butterflies and daisies, and they’re juxtaposed with grime and violence and blood, which makes everything much more jarring and upsetting.

  4. February 17, 2014 8:38 pm

    I read this because of Jo Walton, too. 🙂 I haven’t wrote a post about it yet, but I hope to this week!

    • February 19, 2014 11:46 am

      I’m looking forward to that. It’s fun to see a kind of second wave of reviews of this book, after her book.

  5. February 18, 2014 6:51 am

    I agree with the first half of BermudaOnion’s comment — that sounds disturbing. Ugh, need brain bleach now.

    • February 19, 2014 11:49 am

      You liked The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, and this wraps your mind around a different kind of warped reality in very much the same way.

      • February 19, 2014 12:54 pm

        You’re right, I did. But I did so with great reluctance and almost shame that I could like such a book.

  6. Jenny permalink
    February 19, 2014 3:29 pm

    So, the diary’s named Anne? Nice little nod there to another twisted reality. This sounds very interesting; I generally like this kind of speculative fiction a lot.

    • February 20, 2014 10:48 am

      Yes, the diary is named Anne. Such a little-girl touch. I’m thinking of Anne Frank when you mention “another twisted reality.”

      • February 21, 2014 7:15 pm

        That’s exactly what I was thinking right when you said the story starts with Lola getting a diary for her birthday, and the progression of the story sort of sounds like Anne’s family having to move from their comfortable home into the Annex. Lola’s family is also Jewish, it sounds like. It’s as if Womack is at least partly mirroring Anne’s story in Lola’s.

        I wonder if Lola knows about Anne Frank, and that’s why she names her diary “Anne,” or if that’s just Womack’s way of making the allusions even clearer?

        • February 22, 2014 11:47 am

          Either way, it works! And yes, I should have mentioned that Lola’s one claim to “ethnicity” is that she comes from a Jewish background, although it seems pretty far back, as they celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas.

  7. February 20, 2014 10:43 am

    Sounds like you had a wonderful trip in spite of the rain. I’m reading Walton’s collection very slowly and have marked Random Acts as a book I’d like to read sometime. Now I really want to read after your review of it!

    • February 20, 2014 10:49 am

      Today we’re getting a brief thaw in Ohio, and it’s 50 degrees and raining. Ah, reminds me of San Francisco.
      I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about Random Acts.

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