liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
[personal profile] liv
Author: Jack Womack

Details: (c) 1993 Jack Womack; Pub Grove Press 1995; ISBN 0-8021-3424-6

Verdict: Random acts of senseless violence is absolutely terrifying.

Reasons for reading it: [ profile] rysmiel's recommendation outweighed the extremely off-putting title.

How it came into my hands: Present from [ profile] rysmiel *smile*

I don't think I have ever been so terrified by any book. That said, Random Acts of Senseless Violence is not particularly gory or graphically violent, despite the title. Yes, there is violence, but that's not what makes it scary, and it's done sensitively. It's scary because it's an almost entirely plausible account of how fragile civilization is. RAoSV charts the collapse of American society over the course of six months, starting from a situation which is only slightly worse and seems easily reachable from current reality. And yeah, there are lots of dystopian and apocalyptic books out there, but I've never come across such an account that convinces me the way RAoSV does.

It's partly convincing because it's emotionally engaging; it's a good novel (albeit a political one), not a good political essay. The format of a 12-year-old's diary works very well, mainly because Lola is such a believable and sympathetic character. OK, the references to Anne Frank are a little bit unsubtle, but still. The other characters come across well too even though they are seen only from Lola's rather self-centred 12-year-old's perspective. Lola is both a plausible child and a really sophisticated narrator; there's almost no suspension of disbelief even though the story is much more carefully constructed than any real teenager's diary.

The pacing is an incredible achievement. The gradual introduction of background facts which show that the setting is a near-future dystopia rather than a contemporary setting is exquisite. And then the situation both for Lola personally and for the country as a whole gets worse and worse in incremental steps, so that each down-turn seems entirely plausible but the final catastrophe is built up inexorably. I was completely drawn into the story, and I couldn't emotionally let go of hope that things would turn out ok, despite the obviously unavoidable doom once things start spiralling downwards. And I was really upset when things did go horribly wrong in the last section, even though I knew that was going to happen.

The only thing that rang slightly false for me was the linguistic shift. In the earlier part of the book, Lola's standard English is constrasted with the ghetto slang of her new friends from a rougher part of town, and that worked well for me. Lola picking up odd words of the street dialect seems reasonable; Lola completely changing her entire style of speech and losing her ability to construct grammatical sentences seemed a bit far-fetched. But that's a minor criticism and not totally implausible; people do change their dialect depending on the people around them.

I also thought the Katherine story arc was a little heavy-handed. I suppose it is worth making the point that child abuse is not confined to socially excluded black families, but it reads like something that was slotted in as a pre-emptive defence against accusations of racism, rather than something that contributes to the story. And the presentation tended towards the emotionally manipulative, in contrast to the rest of the book which is impressively unsentimental.

I can see why it's possible to talk about enjoying RAoSV; it is technically really impressive. And it's not unremittingly bleak, there are a few happy moments and happy relationships. The variation in tone does make the horrific underlying theme emotionally even less bearable, though. I'm actually finding it quite hard to review RAoSV, because I'm so very frightened and disturbed by it.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 12:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It would probably give me nightmares. I have a low fear tolerance, and the things that most frighten me are the things that to the best of my knowledge are psychologically real. Even if the particular person or acts never happened, if they are quite possible ways for a person to be. Because then I can't say - well, that's just fiction, no need to worry about those monsters, because there are monsters like that.

I don't like believable psychopaths/sociopaths or societies turned horribly cruel in ways that societies actually do sometimes turn. I remember studying politics and abnormal psych back to back courses. My schedule had me go straight from one to the other. Unfortunately, we ended up studying facism about the same time abnormal psych was studying... something horrible about people. It was a very depressing time period, and it made me really depressed for humanity.

Although on the upside, I do also know many positive things about people. Little babies, barely able to crawl, if raised more or less normally and not abused, will generally try to crawl over to another baby to comfort it if it starts crying. Before they can even talk, many humans will show signs of caring and compassion.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 02:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, for me, the really scary part of RAoSV was Van Man. The thought of being turfed out of your home, having to uproot with your family and belongings, being in the sort of vulnerable position that means somebody can just walk all over you, charge you stupid money, destroy your things, because you just need something very simple from them.

Made me really worried about moving house and having to find a way to transport my belongings into my new place. Van Man is not some dystopian future, he's here and now.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 02:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I moved house last year, thirteen months after reading RAoSV, and used a taxi van company (i.e. man with van). I survived, and so did my belongings. I can recommend them to you if you want.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 02:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks, but I moved house a couple of months ago now and also managed to get through it ok. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 03:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The only remotely supernatural thing in the story is that the heroine has a vision of an angel at one point, and that gets two lines and no further mention.

Well, sort of. I can't remember exactly what it was that clued me on this one, but I was already sure, before asking Jack and him confirming it, that this was in fact the end of Heathern seen from a different perspective. [ In much the same way as some George R. R. Martin stories are echoing off Leonard Cohen songs, there are definite musical echoes in the Dryco books, and Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" seems the obvious referent here. ]

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 06:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
just reading _about_ it is scaring me! er, i'm very easily scared.
have you read The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson? even though it's not really part of the story all the cycles of civilisations lead me to think about the end of civilisation, the end of humans and the probable eventual collapse of the solar system, the possible converging universe etc. which i find all rather upsetting. a bit paralysing. couldnt get it out of my head for weeks. the boy thinks i'm absurd of course and i am, i mean there's no point worrying about such things is there?
... so i am quite curious about this book but i might scare myself silly. hmm.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 07:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I have posted this link before, but to my mind the answer to existential upset with the eventual end of things on a species-level and cosmic scale is very well put here, or at least this is a lot of how I live with it.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-21 08:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
thank you for this. it is good advice, but i find it difficult to take comfort in what is comfort offered. i feel slightly panicky at the thought of the End Of Everything but overriding that is a great sadness.
sorry for not replying sooner - i wasn't sure because i will end up rambling on and on though i suppose it's livredor's fault for opening the hatch on a big pile of thoughts...
i simply cant help feeling sad, a big sad, at the thought of leaving no trace. all the effort and intention of humans, with our sentience and passion and love and hate and convoluted reasoning and joy and sorrow, none of it leaving a trace of its existence, of it ever having happened. it pivots on an idea of the universe that i have no way of qualifying - that of eventual collapse, followed by rebirth. since only the purest form of energy/matter can be continuous between the two, quite possibly nothing will be recognisable - like substances, elements, dimensions... i dont know any of this to be true of course, but i believe it to be feasible.

comfort is the idea that there is continuum: that your children will remember you, that you leave some kind of evidence of your existence, historical, archaeological, that the way you treat others and the way you live are part of the aggregate that makes up the continuum. i believe these things to be true. i take little comfort from other ideas such as existing through your DNA in your children, and the afterlife or reincarnation. but my comfort is always doubted by the great void that will come after, the certainty that the human continuum cannot last forever, that no matter what we do there will be nothing of us left.
there isn't really an argument here. i suppose it's one of those topics that is entirely self-centred in that whatever you believe is what is true. so i'm not sure even why i'm relating it, but i thought you should have a reply and maybe i was hoping in doing so it would reveal something, a flaw, or a ludicrousness in being written down. maybe it is just a good thing to write Big Thoughts down. why not? i've written plenty about subjects i have little investment in...

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-21 08:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
i have made a note of it, but i wont be able to read it til later in the year..
i also have great concerns about immediate dangers. not least because of the dangers of speeding our own extinction.

fearing death is quite a lot linked with this, and not much with the universe collapsing. basically when i was a child i didnt fear death much. i think i thought quite early on that humans are animals and we lived and reproduced and died, and that it was natural. i also had a belief that people were generally good. that inherently they would do good by each other.

now i dont hold by that. it's not that i think people are evil, but i see that a lot of people's actions are centred on greed and protected by stupidity. there are lots of things i want to change. this is obviously very egotistical of me but i worry that when i am dead there will be one less person who cares (about planet and people). because i dont see a lot of people who give a shit. but it's not like i am martin luther king or a really proactive person or anything. so it's just my big head.

often on the bus i go past the WWII museum, with its big signs outside from the '40s, about how every person counts and we've all got to make the effort and sacrifices for a greater good. well, where is that now? why aren't people prepared to make minor sacrifices for the greater good? dont they believe in that stuff anymore? many people have told me that it's not going to make a difference if they do something small so why bother. i consider myself to be super-light-green. ie. i dont do anything that requires much effort or changing my ways, but i do sincerely believe that if everybody made a little bit of effort it would make a big impact on environmental damage and people's suffering. it might well not be enough, as the dark-greens are keen on telling me, but it would be something. i find it hard to comprehend when i see people buying apples from new zealand when ours are in season. surely they are just not thinking? so what will it take to get people to think? it is hard work even getting one person to think. i've been working on the boy for about 3 years and some of it has got through, but still not everything, and it's not like he's lacking in brain cells...

veering off-topic there. fearing death? that's a yes then. but some aspects more than others. although recently i've even thought about having children, children who will love me and remember me when i die (unless circumstances disallow). and then i realise what i'm musing and why (to make me feel better about being mortal, to 'continue the line') and that worries me much more. selfish desires overrule the strongest-held principles every time...

The Years of Rice And Salt

Date: 2006-01-13 10:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I actually found The Years of Rice And Salt somewhat comforting on reflection: the twentieth century in our history might have been hell, but it was at least a damn sight better than it could have been, as the seventy-year war in The Years of Rice And Salt showed.

BTW, I'd be interested to know what you thought of that book, given how much of it relates to a cultural heritage which I can't assess the verisimilitude of (beyond getting a few references), but which you can.

Re: The Years of Rice And Salt

Date: 2006-01-21 08:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
it wasn't so much _what_ it said as the general form of civilisations rising and falling that worried me. the scale of human life.

i'm not that hot on 'my' cultural heritage, most unfortunately. you want to speak to my mother about that - i tentatively recommended the book to her but she hasn't read it yet. (tentatively - because she has been very scathing about things from the 'east' written by or for 'westerners' in the past. it's a factor in me not knowing an awful lot - i cant read chinese so automatically everything i could read on chinese culture as a child was inferior and i felt discouraged). given that you probably wont be having any in-depth cultural discussions with my mum anytime soon, i'll have a think about the book, and maybe ask her some questions for the next time i see you.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 01:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
One of the things I really liked about it was the depth and nuance of the family relationships, and how they're affected by external influences to do with events in the wider society, particularly the relationships between the two sisters. (Maybe that had something to do with their nicknames for each other - my sister's nickname for me is Beebs and she's the only person who calls me that.)

Thinking back on the book, I can't help wondering if it's a metaphor for growing up. Does Lola's language shift signify a complete cognitive shift to go along with it, the kind of cognitive shift that goes along with growing up? I don't remember everything about the book clearly as it's a couple of years since I read it, but might it perhaps be about how growing up in fucked up society fucks you up as an individual? As [ profile] leora points out, humans are capable of great compassion and caring, even at very young ages, but maybe RAoSV is about how maturing in a corrupt society bludgeons those qualities out of you and/or doesn't allow you to exercise/develop those qualities.

That's kind of a grim interpretation, I know, and is one that is perhaps in dangerous of idealising childhood and demonising adulthood a bit too much. Maybe I'm just in a cynical mood and am being harsh on both society and the process of growing up.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 02:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Verdict: Random acts of senseless violence is absolutely terrifying.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

You normally put in your verdict whether you enjoyed reading a book (though tbh I think appreciated reading it would be more apposite here), and whether you would recommend it to other people.

Me, having read it I'm not now particularly inclined to read the rest of the series.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 03:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't think enjoy is a word I would apply to Random Acts..., exactly, it is a staggering and deeply unsettling novel which I admire immensely. It's been some years since I read it, and I had not actually been thinking of the ways in which its time has come around again - the Dryco series, of which Random Acts is the fifth written and Heathern the third, started as a reaction to the Reagan era. The linguistic shift really worked for me, it's one of the things that makes the book stick as something I can come back to again and again, seeing how that's done.

I think I would conditionally recommend the rest of the series to you. The world after the end of Random Acts... is pretty much as bad as one would guess [ though it's not unmitigated doom and gloom forever for the next four books, things are a sight more complicated than that ] and I can quite see finding that too much; and Ambient, which is the next chronologically and the first written, is by far the weakest, as it feels like he spent the first two-thirds of it thinking of the book as a Swiftian satire on Reaganomics and then realised he could do more with it if he started taking some of these elements seriously and exploring what they mean. Random Acts... is definitely the strongest book in the series; I stand alone in disagreement with just about everyone I know who has read them, and indeed with Jack Womack, in thinking they read better in publication order than chronological, but there are many people whom I think would be much more likely to bounce off Ambient than off Random Acts... .

There are both a Van Man and a Man With Van in the Montreal phonebook. When we needed stuff moved from warehouse to apartment we did not use either of them.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-12 03:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Lola completely changing her entire style of speech and losing her ability to construct grammatical sentences seemed a bit far-fetched.

I didn't see that as losing, I saw it as choosing.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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