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RANDOM ACTS OF SENSELESS VIOLENCE
By JACK WOMACK (Atlantic Monthly Press; 1993)

According to William Gibson, “If you dropped the characters from NEUROMANCER into Jack Womack’s Manhattan, they’d fall down screaming and have nervous breakdowns.” That, I suspect, is particularly true of RANDOM ACTS OF SENSELESS VIOLENCE, a searingly grim and disturbing look at a near future Manhattan, depicted through the diary entries of Lola, a more-or-less “normal” twelve year old girl.

     Not all is well in Lola’s life. Her screenwriter father is having trouble selling his scripts and her schoolteacher mother can’t seem to find any teaching jobs. Hounded by creditors, the family relocates to Harlem, where things go from worse to worst: Lola’s dad takes a job in a bookstore run by a fascist scumbag, her mom becomes addicted to Prozac and Lola is ostracized by former friends because of her substandard living conditions--not to mention the fact that her budding sexuality is directing itself toward girls rather than boys. The one seeming bright spot is a street-smart girl named Iz, with whom Lola becomes romantically involved.

     But the world around her is collapsing in on itself in a morass of random violence, deadly epidemics, rioting and martial law. Lola is profoundly impacted by this hopeless reality, and in quite a few disturbing ways. Womack conveys Lola’s transformation through the language of her diaries, which begin in bubbly pre-teen girl speak but become increasingly speckled with futuristic street slang until, by the end, Lola’s voice is completely transformed.

     What makes this book especially chilling (aside from its portrayal of the fortunes of Lola’s parents, which, as one who actually had a screenwriter father and schoolteacher mother, I can attest is unnervingly true to life) is the future world Womack has created, which never feels anything less than disturbingly prophetic. Then there’s Lola herself, a fully drawn character whose brutal coming of age is both shocking and heartbreaking. The result is one of the grimmest books I’ve ever read, but, in its linguistic brilliance, also one of the most ingenious. 

     

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