Fri
Jul 25 2008 3:44pm

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?

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.

46 comments
Liza .
1. aedifica
Also, if I did pick it up in a store or the library to flip through it despite the title, I'd have turned to somewhere in the middle and likely have been put off by the fact that I wasn't reading comprehensible English, given what you say about the language changing throughout the book.

So it sounds like this is a book that really has to be advertised by word of mouth. And now you have!
Richard T.
2. Richard T.
I completely agree, Random Acts of Senseless Violence is one of my favorite (SF) books ever. My brother and me are big time fans of the book. You're right, it's kind of a mystery why this book is so unknown. The cover of the copy that I have (The UK softcover) isn't that bad.
I also like Elvissey a lot, but I have never read Heathern. I probably should. I just wish that Jack Womack would write more. I guess that his daytime job takes up all this time nowadays.
BTW, also a big fan of Farthing an Ha'Penny.

Richard T.
Janet Kegg
3. jmk
I read it and thought it was terrific. I sought out a copy because of what you'd written about it somewhere on usenet.

Listen to Jo, folks!
Pete Young
4. peteyoung
Yes, it's all the things you say – hot, realistic, emotional, edgy and weird – and I also found it uncomfortably voyeuristic, particularly the way Lola experiments sexually as a young teenager. I also found her 'descent' into gang life too rapid and too far gone, but having said that it's clearly meant to be very much a raw and even slightly eviscerating experience, things happen so quickly to her.

I know no one else who's read it, and to be honest I've never recommended it to anyone – I'm far more likely to recommend Disch's '334', which it reminded me of (and which coincidentally I'm re-reading now, and I can still hear the echoes).
Richard T.
5. Brother Phil
I remember finding this in my local library - mindblowing. It's a book that leaves you hating the world, and perfectly happy so to do. (well, until it wears off, anyway).
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Aedifica: Very good point. I hadn't thought of that. I might not have read it myself if I'd done that.
Richard T.
7. Connatic
I have read it and have long considered it a classic in the field. Glad to see it getting some attention.
Richard T.
8. Greig Christie
I own the 1994 UK paperback release of the book. I've got it in front of me right now. The cover is a garish mess right enough but I remember buying it on the strength of the blurb on the back of the book - it just sounded very intriguing.
I've not read it again since I first got it but my memory is that I found it slightly disappointing and I never bought another Jack Womack book.
However I think I'll be giving it another go after your interesting reappraisal.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Richard T: As well as Heathern you may have missed Ambient and Terraplane as well as the series conclusion Going, Going, Gone. GGG disappointed me, because after that long waiting and anticipating, almost anything would have. The other three are all good -- Terraplane features a trip to the world visited in Elvissey which leaves you glad to be back in the horrible Dryco world.

I also wish he would write more. He's on my fairly short "buy anything on sight" list.
Richard T.
10. Tracey C.
"I can't think of a comparable linguistic achievement, especially as he does it without any made up words."

I presume that the disclaimer is to meant to disqualify _A Clockwork Orange_, which is the first thing that came to mind for me. (Although I'm not sure Russian slang counts as made-up, per se.) There's also an Asimovian short story that turns language usage upside down by the end, ever there's a lovely children's book called _Ella Minnow Pea_ that gradually eliminates letters of the alphabet from the speech of the characters entirely as the book progresses (tied directly to the plot).

Of course, my all time favorite "take your brain and have it working sideways by the time you're done reading this" story is Ted Chiang's _Story of My Life_.

It still comes across, from your description, as something in the YA "problem novel" genre, which isn't a genre I generally seek out, having read more than enough of them to this point.

(p.s. typo in the first line, Viokence instead of Violence)
Tzut Tzut
11. WillieMcBride
Never heard of this book (or of its author) but it seems interesting, so I'm going to put it in my TOREAD list.

I'm really loving your posts here.
Thomas Wagner
12. SFReviews.net
Chalk me up as another guy who hadn't heard of this one, but will seek it out now. Sounds like it will at least make for an interesting one to review. Question: is Jack Womack the SF writer the same Jack Womack who's the publicist now for Eos?
Ben Longman
13. bmfrosty
The trade paperback turns me off. I'm pretty hesitant to pay $14 for a book to add to my 'to read' pile without a recommendation first. Two or three recommendations minimum - or a Hugo or Nebula nomination. A book that I can buy for $8 is a bit easier, and I'll just pick up based on author if I can find it used for $4.
Thomas Wagner
14. SFReviews.net
Ah, took a look at his bio over at the link provided, and answered my own question.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
bmfrosty: I bet they have libraries where you live too!

Libraries operate a sort of "shareware" system where you can read a book and take it back and if you like it you can then buy it. It lets you try things with no risk at all.

In most places, you can join just by proving you're a local resident.

I don't know how people manage without them.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Tracey C: It isn't like a YA problem novel at all. Not even a bit. This might be something else that put people off it. It's hard to persuade people to read books with young protagonists that aren't YA.

I think on the language it's right up there with Clockwork Orange and a bit ahead. They'd make an interesting paired read, actually.

I also love "Story of Your Life".
Richard T.
17. [dave]
i've put it on my booksfree.com list ...

your phrase "I also can't think of many books that have a protagonist change so much and so smoothly and believably" had me thinking of a non-SF title by sapphire called "push." sapphire is predominantly a poet, but this novel's protagonist narrates as she understands language, and the text changes and becomes more articulate as she does. i'd rec'd it highly.
Richard T.
18. Luke Jackson
I've read it, but I probably wouldn't have known about it if I didn't have a science fiction class in college where Ambient and Elvissey were assigned reading.
Ben Longman
19. bmfrosty
Oh the biting sarcasm. How will I ever reconcile myself with your taunting?

Libraries don't usually like it when I borrow a book for years on end while waiting to get around to deciding that I want it to be the next book I read. I've kinda been a 15 book a year kind of guy the last decade anyway - sneaking in 10 pages here and there when I get a chance. I don't read on other people's (organization's) schedules.

I plan to pick up the book on the glowing recommendation you gave, and the other mentions I found of it in a google search, but the point still stands that I (and probably others) tend to give less attention to books with higher cover prices.
Richard T.
20. ed g.
A great book. I should reread it again. It was also my introduction to the Dryco series, and I think it's the best of them. _Terraplane_ comes close, but I didn't find the rest as memorable. Except for the Gnostic gospel-singing in _Elvissey_ ("I'm glad, so glad, that I was born to die").

Of course, I read the series completely out of sequence and at long intervals, so maybe I should just try again in order.
Richard T.
21. Tim Walters
I tried to like Jack Womack--he's clearly an outstanding writer in many ways--but I found his obsession with ultraviolence tedious (and in the case of Ambient, even risible). So a book called Random Acts of Senseless Violence isn't calculated to lure me back.

I love 334, though, so color me intrigued.
Avram Grumer
23. avram
Jo, I've got a library where I live -- literally, the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is right around the corner -- and they don't have Random Acts. The New York Public Library lists two copies, both "Missing".
David Dyer-Bennet
24. dd-b
I think I see the distinction you're making about whether the author made up new words, but really, it sounds to me like I'd still say "I've already read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and A Clockwork Orange, so that's not new and exciting."

And it sounds like a real downer.
Jo Walton
25. bluejo
DD-B -- I don't think you'd like it. But I do.
Gary Gibson
26. garygibson
I've read all the Dryco books. I'll have to say I wasn't disappointed by Going, Going, Gone - I thought myself it was superb, and the way it ended utterly perfect and a little haunting.

One book of Womack's that hasn't been mentioned is his non-Dryco book 'Let's Put the Future Behind Us', which apart from having one of the all-time great titles, is set in modern post-Soviet Russia. As I vaguely recall Womack says in the introduction, Womack went to Russia to research a Bill Gibson movie project and realised very quickly that not only had Dryco come entirely into existence in modern Russia, it was even worse and weirder.

It's not sf, but if you've read or are a fan of the Dryco books, I urge you to READ THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW. Because it's a de facto Dryco book, except everybody's name is Russian. It's very high on my list of 'books I buy people for their birthday'.

Ps - just in case you missed it - BUY THIS BOOK.
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
Gary Gibson: I have it. I think it's brilliant and very peculiar, and the oddest thing about it is that it's not SF.

I have occasion to say "Sovietland!" more often than one would imagine.
Jana Lubina
28. Lubes
I came across it at a used bookstore. Loved it. On page 54 the previous owner had mysteriously scrawled "I'm not going on, I saw all of this in a dream;" which prompted me to scribble a cryptic remark in one of the books I was selling to the store: "you will die a terrible death in 24 hours."
Liza .
29. aedifica
@Lubes: I see a difference between "cryptic" and "threatening." I'm all for cryptic remarks, but...
Richard T.
30. Lastard
i came across it by accident. the local library was selling some old books of and i got it for a few pence. it was one hell of a read! i, too, thought it was underrated. unfortunately my ex has it now along with some other good scifi books that have probably been burned by now ;)
Richard T.
31. Gavbad
I read this years ago, I'd completely forgotten about it.

Your right, it's brilliant. It's all flooding back to me now.
Richard T.
32. Jack Womack
Hi Jo,

Thank you much for your kind words, which I see Cory picked up and sent along as well.

I think you've pretty much nailed it, in terms of what happened. Random was actually the one book I've ever toured for in the US, and it also got the biggest number of good reviews -- right up to Scott Bradfield's in the NYTSBR, at which point the reviews pretty much ceased.

Most (not all) of my covers and packaging designs have been awful, save for a couple of the US editions (Elvissey comes to mind), some of the foreign translations, and of course, the US/UK editions of Let's Put the Future Behind Us.

The title I came up with eleven years before I wrote the book, and waited each season to see if it would be used before I had a chance. For those who have had trouble with the title, senseless physical violence was not in fact the kind I had uppermost in mind.

And for all of you who've liked the book (and my other books too, if you've read them, and if you've liked them), muchas thankas.
Richard T.
33. Ken Houghton
As long as you're here, Jack, would you please confirm that the, er, penultimate moments of GGG are =not= set at my house?

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviewed the book for NYRSF, comparing it to _Call of the Wild_. I still think that stands.
Richard T.
34. Scraps
Jack Womack is one of the greatest living writers in the English language. I can't stand fetishized violence in books, but his is sincerely horrifying. I hate cheap dystopias; his is earned. I wince at showy dialect for dialect's sake; his is real.

I think the neglect of Random Acts has a lot to do with changing genres. Elvissey was published within the SF field, which had paid Womack a fair amount of attention from the time of Ambient (which was published by a mainstream house in hardcover but as science fiction in paperback); but Random Acts wasn't published as science fiction at all, and the hip Village Voice critical audience that was embracing more graspable ex-genre writers like Lethem around that time didn't blaze up for Womack, unfortunately.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
35. pnh
What Scraps said.

I passed on Random Acts for Tor, conscious as I did so that it was a great book, by which I mean a Great Book. I did so because I thought the Tor Books of the time would screw it up.

This was a mistake, based in the belief that the mavens of the "mainstream" would do better. They didn't, and I won't make that mistake again.

I hope that posterity will forgive me. Wait, by "posterity" I mean "Jack."
Richard T.
36. Faren Miller
Back in November '93 I finished my review of this book with a sentence that still applies: "Our field is not yet so overrun with genius that we can afford to let even one brilliant, night-minded, novel slip through the cracks."

(And that was *before* so many fine novels ended up coming from small publishers.)
Sammy Jay
37. Malebolge
Here's hoping for continued genre fragmentation.
Sandi Kallas
38. Sandikal
Is this book even available anymore? Or, would I have to get a used copy? I checked both Amazon and Barnes & Noble's websites and they're out of stock. It sounds interesting.
Richard T.
39. Londonbird
I was given an original 93 hardback of Random Acts signed by Jack himself, back in 1997 . I knew nothing of Mr Womack or his Dryco series but I totally LOVE this book.
It is one of my re reads every year. It is truly brilliant. the visceral punch it pulls is remarkable and I am so happy that you are talking about it. His prescient vision is also remarkable. I live in London,I don't know New York that well, but Lola's descent into the abyss,into no go areas both physically ( ie living in squalor) and emotionally, her helplessness in a world going under is an all too familiar tale that I am seeing around me in London at the moment.Middle class poverty is the new rage. Middle class creative intelligensia ( like Lola's parents) are the new poor and her metamorphasis from privilidge to poverty is very real. But Jack Womack's vision of the violence he sees in her nice white middle class world with it's Kure A Kid camp and hidden sexual abuse is equally terrifying.

Also the use of language the changing vernacular of the street that becomes part of is so cleverly crafted.

This is a brilliant brilliant book and should have won many awards.

I've always wondered what happened to Lola.
And her mother and Cheryl.
Did Lola survive the Dcons?

Has anyone read a book by Russel Hoban called Ridley walker.

Set in Post apocalyptic world way in the future.Again vision horrifying and the use of language building up language from scratch when all knowledge has been wiped out and only fragments remain reminds me a bit of RAOSV.
Jo Walton
40. bluejo
Sandikal: The publisher, Grove, seem to still be selling it. There's a link up at the top of the post to their website. Try them and see.

Londonbird: Lola is seen briefly in _Ambient_, which is a few years later. I'm sorry to say that she does not survive. Iz survives though. Iz is the central character of _Elvissey_. And Jude survives and thrives. One of the things that's quite amazing is seeing what he did in the with that group of girls in the other books which were written earlier but set later.

I believe I've only seen my son Sasha genuinely gobsmacked at something in a book twice, and what happens to Lola in _Ambient_ was one of the times.
Richard T.
41. Londonbird
thankyou. I will read Ambient. Albeit with a heavy heart ( poor Lola).
I did read Elvissey which I admired but did not love in the same way mainly because I didn't understand a lot of the references. Do I need to read them in order?
Jo Walton
42. bluejo
I think it helps to have read _Terraplane_ before _Elvissey_.

My general feeling is that they work best in chronological order: _Random Acts_, _Ambient_, _Heathern_, _Terraplane_, _Elvissey_, _GGG_.
Chuk Goodin
43. Chuk
Thanks for mentioning this book -- never heard of it although I'd heard Womack's name and seen Elvissey around. I was moving house the week I got hold of the book and still had to finish it in fits and starts. Excellent writing, might be a little more powerful as I've got a daughter about a year younger than Lola right now. Reminded me a little of A Clockwork Orange both in its use of language and its general dystopian aura.
Elisabeth Kushner
44. ElsKushner
Was just searching for something completely different on the tor.com site & somehow this post came up & now I'm sitting here stunned bc I have LOVED this book ever since it was first published. Read it over and over and have hardly ever found someone else who has even heard of it, never mind felt anything like the deep adoration I bear for it. Everything you said, plus: it's a stupendous and very emotionally realistic coming-out story, one of the few I've read in sf/f.

I had no idea it was first in a series, or that Lola and Iz show up again in other books. Thanks for this.
Richard T.
45. James L.
This book blew me away when I first read it back in 1995 and haven't been able to read it again it was so heartbreaking. Everyone I've recommended it to agrees its a masterpiece. I love the way it takes a jab at everything and everyone no liberal or conservative propaganda here! I think it would be a great book to put on high school required reading lists. Hopefully, it will get it's due someday.
Richard T.
46. Non-necromancer
I know one reason I didn't read this book when it first came out--1993 was the year my daughter was born, and I wasn't reading about new books.
But, wow! This really is a stunning book. I have been trying to think of what to say about it for days, and am still not sure what to write. I will write something soon, though, because I feel the need to keep spreading word of mouth, especially about the language. I enjoyed it more than the language in A Clockwork Orange or Ridley Walker. It goes farther than the language in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, one of my favorite books ever.

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