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: rysmiel's recommendation outweighed the extremely off-putting title.
How it came into my hands: Present from 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.