The violence referred to in the title of Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence isn’t just physical violence but all violence – emotional violence, and the violence of a system that perpetuates poverty and inequality. It’s one of the best books I’ve read and is brilliantly executed with dexterous use of language.
Random Acts wasn’t what I expected at all. Both the title and the cover of the book seem to suggest some sort of dystopian sci-fi thriller, but it’s the diary of Lola, a middle class white twelve-year-old girl. It starts off with a commentary of her day-to-day life with her parents, her little sister, and her relationship with friends at the private school she attends. There are suggestions that society is breaking down, but at this point it largely doesn’t affect Lola and her family. As social unrest continues it starts to impact on their lives; we learn that her mum is unemployed and can’t find a new teaching post and her dad isn’t able to find employment as a scriptwriter. As they struggle to make ends meet, things gradually disintegrate. It’s an astute portrayal of how easy it is for a well-off middle class family to be pushed into poverty. They can no longer afford rent and have to move to a less affluent neighbourhood. The girls lose their friends, the mum self-medicates, the dad takes a job where he is badly treated and works long hours for little money.
This is all told in the engaging, pitch-perfect voice of a twelve-year-old girl. There are already some quirks in the way she uses language (as everyone has their own way of speaking amongst their friends), but as she gets involved with two girls in her new neighbourhood she starts to take on the way they speak, which further alienates her from the people in her previous life. When I got to this part of the book I suddenly understood the comparisons with A Clockwork Orange and Ridley Walker. I was worried the execution would be painful and simply reinforce stereotypes, but the reader is in good hands; the language is dealt with beautifully and doesn’t feel strained or self-conscious.
“Mama missed me while she clinicked. She nearly comaed this morning till I walked her backforth and poured the coffee down her. Now she’s bedded eyeing ceilingways like if she looks long and hard enough she’ll viz what’s downcoming with time enough to duck.”
It also shows perfectly that we don’t have to be constrained by the pedants’ insistence that there is a right and proper way to use language – language is fluid, it comes alive through the ways we use it. The way the girls talk shirk accepted grammar rules, but we understand perfectly what they’re saying (though, it may take a few pages to get into the full flow of it), and there is something beautiful in the way they use words, something that makes me feel all tingly with joy as I read it.
Of course, underlying all this is the issue of class and race. Lola’s aunt Chrissie is wealthy and uses her money to retreat from the threat of a social uprising, putting up the barricades to protect herself from ‘them’. She criticises her sister for taking her children into this dangerous (predominately black) neighbourhood and is disgusted by Lola and the change in the way she speaks.
Without spoiling the story (although, it’s clear where the narrative is going from the beginning), Lola is the only member of her family who is able to adapt to the new circumstances, but it comes at a high price.
Unfortunately, Random Acts is very relevant to present-day UK under the reprehensible Tory government. Along with Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, this is a book that all politicians and teachers should read, and it’s a book that should be on the syllabus in every school.