FEBRUARY 22, 2017
THERE’S A PASSAGE in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where she describes the “catastrophe” that led to the creation of the theocratic Republic of Gilead, “when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.”:
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
People had been citing that passage on social media throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign, but it seemed to take on a particular urgency with readers immediately after Donald Trump’s victory, no doubt spurred by the hyperevangelical worldview of the new vice president, Mike Pence. There was also a rumor that made the rounds in the weeks just before the election, perhaps meant to reconcile the obvious differences between what evangelical Christians profess to believe about morality and the well-known behavior of Donald Trump; evangelical leaders, the rumor went, were praying that Trump would win and die, paving the way for Pence to establish their earthly kingdom. I don’t imagine, however, that very many people who worried aloud that “the United States is turning into The Handmaid’s Tale” were consciously thinking of that rumor. Frankly, the enduring popularity of Atwood’s novel and the buzz about the forthcoming TV adaptation were enough to keep that scene fresh in the public imagination.
There’s another vision of American catastrophe that I’ve been thinking about since last fall, though, from Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which was published in the United States in 1994 (having first appeared in the United Kingdom the previous year). It’s a powerful novel about a young girl struggling to hang on to her sense of self as her world deteriorates into chaos at both the macro and the micro levels, and like so many dystopian visions, it feels more relevant now than ever.
The novel begins on February 15, as Lola Hart writes the first entry in the diary she’s just received for her 12th birthday. Lola’s family lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, at 86th Street near Park Avenue. Her mother is a former professor of 20th-century literature who has just been laid off from NYU, while her father is a screenwriter who has sold a few television scripts but hasn’t been selling much of anything lately. The diary isn’t Lola’s only present; she’s also finally getting her own bedroom, after years of sharing with her little sister, Cheryl (affectionately known as “Boob”). “It’s not a new room but the maid’s old room,” Lola explains. “We had to let her go but I don’t know where she went.” Inez was nice, Lola says, but “she never said much […] because her English wasn’t very good.” It’s a stray detail that Lola records innocently but which hints at the troubles brewing under the surface. It immediately raises a red flag about the Harts’ financial situation, of course, but there’s another ominous hint about how things stand just a few pages later: “I don’t like Los Angeles or Chicago,” Lola writes. “They’re horrible places and I’m glad they’re burning down.”
Lola’s mother encourages her in her writing, explaining that they gave her the diary “so [she] could remember how sweet life is even when it doesn’t seem like it is anymore.” The thing is, it doesn’t seem all that sweet now. From her classroom in Brearley, an upscale private school, Lola can see the helicopters flying over Brooklyn and the smoke from the constantly burning fires. Furthermore, something happened out in Long Island and the mess made its way out to the East River, and now Lola and her classmates all need to get cholera shots. Even walking through Central Park is a fraught experience, to say the least, as homeless people are set on fire in broad daylight.
When the president goes on TV and says “things aren’t as bad as they seem so nobody should worry,” Lola’s parents scoff, calling him a buffoon and an idiot. The press conference continues:
Somebody asked if he was going to do anything and the President said people have troubles because they make their own reality and there’s nothing you can do about it. Then he got in his helicopter and flew away. There was a riot in Detroit and one in Seattle and in Miami. […] There’s too much reality these days, said Daddy.
Another night, Lola watches footage of the president meeting with his Cabinet and notices the same glassy-eyed stare her mother gets when she’s taking Xanax. It isn’t that much longer before the president is shot, and replaced by “the guy everybody always makes fun of,” who tells the nation “there’s no reason for anyone to worry about the situation.” As Lola notes, though, “he didn’t say which situation.” There is some clarification soon after, which readers in early 2017, as President Trump threatens to send “the Feds” into Chicago, should find particularly chilling:
He said that Operation Domestic Storm would calm everything down in no time and that there was no need to worry about the economy. He said the nation was poised for recovery like he always said. He also said on the advice of advisors mobs of animals in the city would be shown no mercy.
Meanwhile, although Lola’s mother has taken on some freelance copyediting work, and her father accepts a full-time job as a clerk in a bookstore downtown (under the thumb of a sadistic, mentally unstable owner), the money situation doesn’t get any better, and the Harts are forced to move to a smaller apartment on the West Side, a few blocks below 125th Street — just before the president sends the army into Harlem to quell the unrest uptown. (New York’s National Guard is already stretched thin in the outer boroughs.) Lola makes a new friend, a slightly older African-American girl named Isabelle (“Call me Iz”), who becomes her mentor as she segues into a world of intimate, street-level violence with, by the novel’s end, devastating consequences.
When I first read Random Acts in my mid-20s, I hadn’t yet gotten around to Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I didn’t realize that Womack had set his novel in practically the same neighborhood, just blocks from where Harriet Welsch grew up, nor that he was intensifying and expanding upon many of that story’s darkest elements. (Though it takes a while for Lola to piece all the clues together, for example, it’s clear from the beginning that her best friend is being molested by her father.) Coming back to Womack after Harriet, Lola’s mother reads like a deliberately exaggerated version of Mrs. Welsch. “Angel the one thing your father and I always wanted was to make sure you and little Boob went to good schools because it’s so important,” Mrs. Hart frets as the family finances near rock bottom. “But sweetie I don’t see how we can now we don’t have the money to pay them it’s all we can do to pay the expenses.”
Breathless dialogue like that may seem silly at first, but it ultimately provides a vital background to the transformation of Lola’s own inner language over the course of the novel. When she first gets her diary, she decides to give it a name, “so I don’t think I’m talking to a wall like Daddy says he feels like when he talks to us sometimes,” and settles on Anne: “that’s a good name for a diary and I’ll never show you to anyone else. What I tell you is just between you and me.” At the end, though, Lola’s voice has become much blunter, taking on a poetic force:
Bye bye Anne. You’re my best friend but I’ve penned myself dry with all I writ. You give ear when everybody deafs and lend me shoulder constant if tears need dropping. I know you’re always with me but time shorts and I have to solo present. Deathpeace still be an undone deal but I set now ready when it come whenever it come.
That’s the aspect of Random Acts that has stuck with me most over the last 20-plus years (during which time, I add for full disclosure, my fandom for Jack Womack has evolved into passing acquaintance). Yes, the scenes that remind me of what’s happening in the United States today have an immediate resonance, but I wouldn’t be able to recall them had I not been moved by the portrait of a young girl changing in real time — transformed by social and personal upheaval into a dark, disturbing, but ultimately tragic figure. By all means, reread The Handmaid’s Tale — as a matter of fact, I’m just about to do so myself. But if you haven’t yet read Random Acts of Senseless Violence, I hope you will. Womack’s stark vision of the United States’s decline is an uncompromising satire that, perhaps even more than it did in the mid-1990s, forces us to confront a world instantly recognizable as our own.
Ron Hogan helped create the literary internet by launching Beatrice.com in 1995. He is an active presence in New York City’s literary scene, hosting and curating events such as Lady Jane’s Salon, the first monthly reading series dedicated to romance fiction.