Walton’s review states Random Acts is one of her favourite books. As a man who has recently discovered and (mostly) fallen in love with Walton’s own work, this makes it a must read. I was really looking forward to reading this book. My self-appointed book club reads are few and far between, but I knew the next one I read would not be a random act. The problem with this sort of expectation is that it can strongly influence your opinion of a novel. There was almost no way I could enjoy this book as much as I wanted to.
I often struggle with ‘classic’ science fiction. During my formative fiction reading years, around 1990, I found it dry and difficult to absorb. By classic I’m talking about the stuff my Dad used to read. Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson; books written in 60s and 70s. I found Random Acts similarly hard to find a way into. It’s technically accomplished, but it didn’t grab me. Reading it was an exercise in putting one word after the other, to build a story, rather being flung headlong into the narrative. It reminded me of reading those ‘old’ novels again. Curiously, it was written in 1993. It was cutting edge at the time I struggled with old masterworks. I think 20 year old me would probably have hated this book.
Current dystopian fiction is rarely character based. It tends to be plucky characters (teenagers) sticking it to the man. They turn over on the back of rebellion and the reclaiming of freedoms. Whilst the central protagonists are agents of great change, they themselves usually change very little. Characters in the modern dystopia are born ready for their roles. Womack’s treatment is altogether different. It’s far more character driven. It’s also set on our side of the downfall. No single, evil megalomaniac has set up the world to be unfair. The world is merely unequal. The privileged few live in isolated luxury, whilst the majority of the masses live in penury. Sound familiar?
The premise of the novel could have been taken from any number of post-austerity documentaries about middle class, white collar families, who suddenly find themselves jobless and all but unemployable. Lola Hart is a middle class girl, whose writer parents buy her a diary for her birthday. She goes to a private school and lives in a large apartment in Manhattan. As the novel opens we learn that all is not well in the rest of New York and the USA but, for now, Manhattan stays wide awake in splendid isolation.
As Lola writes in her diary, we see world affairs and the state of her home life. Wars and riots are given brief tantalising mentions, the minutiae of the dinner table and playground politics a whole lot more. A short way into the novel, Lola’s parents are forced to relocate northwards to the fringes of Harlem. Suddenly Lola and her sister a forced to commute miles across the city in order to get to school. The change in postcode (ZIP!), makes them social pariahs amongst their classmates. Beyond that, Lola wrestles with her awakening sexuality, giving the novel an additional personal dimension. There are many struggles going on here.
The most remarkable thing about Random Acts is its narrative voice. As Lola’s view of the world shifts, so does her language. As Walton points out in her review the subtle shift in language is one of the novel’s key devices. Having said that, I wasn’t totally convinced. Firstly, speaking in a patois is one thing, children readily ape the mannerisms of their peers, but I’m not sure this translates into their written language so smoothly. The shift seemed too fast for me.
Another problem I often have with diary based novels is the level of detail recalled about dialogue and events. I’m not sure people really record their conversations word for word when they write them down. Even if they could remember it fully, I think only a general sense of the dialogue is what would be recorded, with maybe one or two choice quotes. This however is a technical point, and doesn’t really interfere with the novel’s enjoyment.
But did I enjoy it? Well, the story is very slow. Very little happens. It’s descent by degrees. I certainly wasn’t urgently compelled to read on. The introduction of dialect didn’t help me. It’s something I often struggle with. Rare is the novel where I become so caught up in altered speech, that I cease to notice. It was only on finishing the book that I appreciated how good it is. The novel has a left-wing bias; the have-nots are portrayed an underclass, left to battle amongst themselves whilst the rich live untouched. The book may be twenty years old but its still massively relevant, perhaps now more so than ever.
Womack offers a strong position on the nature vs nurture debate. All those who think those in poverty are born lazy, idle and criminal would do well to read this book. It’s as poignant decline as you are ever likely to read. So whilst at times I found the book a bit boring, reading on only out of respect for Jo Walton, I’m so glad I finished it. It’s one of those books that worms its way beneath your skin. Even now, days after having read it, little flashes of it return. It’s a clever and disturbing chronicle of a personal downfall. It also chimes scarily with the current political climate. I wish my book club wasn’t a solo effort as there is lots to discuss here. This book is the first of Womack’s Dryco series, and whilst it’s much the easiest to get hold of, I will definitely be trying to track down at least one more to see what else he has to say.