Random Acts of Senseless Violence: Why isn’t it a classic of the field?

Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Viokence is one of my favorite books, and indeed, one of the favourite books of everybody who lives in this apartment.

Outside of this apartment, I only know a handful of people who have even heard of it. It always strikes me as strange when there’s something like that, a book that’s brilliant and ought to have been seminal, a book that clearly should have set the world alight and yet sank with barely a ripple. 

Random Acts is written in the form of the diary of Lola Hart, a twelve year old girl in a near-future New York City. As the book progresses she changes from being a sweet middle-class child to a robbing murdering street girl as society changes around her. Presidents are assassinated and money is devalued and martial law is declared as she worries about her sexuality and groans about being forced to read Silas Marner for school. At the start of the book she’s writing in standard English with the occasional odd word choice, by the end she has progressed into a completely different dialect, and you have progressed step by step along with her and are reading it with ease. I can’t think of a comparable linguistic achievement, especially as he does it without any made up words. (Random example: “Everything downcame today, the world’s spinning out and I spec we finally all going to be riding raw.”) I also can’t think of many books that have a protagonist change so much and so smoothly and believably. What makes it such a marvelous book is the way Lola and her world and the prose all descend together, and even though it’s bleak and downbeat it’s never depressing.

So, why haven’t you read it?

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There are four reasons I can think of.

First, it might be because it didn’t get much attention. It had some reviews, but it wasn’t even nominated for any awards. It was published in 1993, in Britain first, by HarperCollinsPublishers, and then in 1995 in the US by Grove Press. This probably messed up its award eligibility. I was just looking on the Locus index of awards, and I saw that Womack’s previous and (only slightly less terrific) Elvissey won the Philip K. Dick Award and was on the short list for the Locus Award, but Random Acts doesn’t seem to have been nominated for anything. It would have been eligible for the 1993 BSFA Award in Britain, which was won that year by Christopher Evans’s Aztec Century, thus proving that there’s no accounting for taste. 

Secondly, it might be because it has had singularly appalling covers. The original British hardcover was fairly bad, but sufficiently appealing that I got it out of the library on a cold day just before Christmas 1993, when I was feeling particularly desperate for something to read. The paperback covers — British and US — are just eye-gougingly awful. Despite having already read it and loved it I recoiled from the British cover. I’ve had friends who sounded intrigued by my description of the book change their minds when they actually see it.

Thirdly, it might be because the title is offputting. You may have noticed I haven’t been calling it Random Acts of Senseless Violence every time I mention it, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not a bad title for the book, but it’s offputting for the kind of people who would enjoy it. It’s also offputting, according to some Amazon reviews, to the kind of people who would really love a book with that title and don’t want the diary of a twelve-year old as the world goes to hell around her.

It seems to me that the purpose of the title and the cover are to help the book find its friends. This hasn’t worked here. I’m the only person I know who started the Dryco series (which also includes Terraplane, Heathern, and Elvissey) with Random Acts, the rest of the handful of people I know who have read it read it because they already loved the others. Yet it’s the first — chronologically — and the best place to start. 

Now awful covers, a worrying title and no attention are damning enough for a book, but I think the thing that really relegated it to such undeserved  obscurity is that it was a novel that didn’t meet the zeitgeist. It didn’t meet the expectations of what SF was supposed to be doing. It doesn’t fall into an easy category and so it’s hard to sell. The UK edition has a William Gibson quote on the back that says “If you dropped the characters from Neuromancer into Womack’s Manhattan, they’d fall down screaming and have nervous breakdowns.” Gibson said that, and he meant it in a good way… but in the late eighties and early nineties Gibson was what people were looking at and cyberpunk was what they were expecting, with the New Space Opera just starting to come along to replace it. Gibson’s affect is very cool, very noir, and that of his imitators even more so. What Womack was doing was hot and realistic and emotional, as well as edgy and weird. It didn’t quite fit, so people didn’t know how to take it — and very few of them did take it. I think it might do better today in today’s more fragmented SF field, but in 1993 being totally astonishingly brilliant clearly wasn’t enough.

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