With reference to critical legal studies and Marxist/Anarchist legal theories, and via a law and literature framework, I hope to analyse Jack Womack’s seminal 1993 sci-fi novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence. Where possible, I have tried to simplify concepts and ideas to make them accessible.
I would like to provide trigger warnings in relation to sexual and gender discrimination and violence, extensive police brutality, and other hate crimes. I will also be discussing the plot at length so there will be major spoilers ahead. That being said, I have had extensive exposure to classic Science Fiction and very few books have thrown emotional punches like Random Acts of Senseless Violence, so I would highly recommend reading it for yourself, even if you liked my summary and interpretation.
The novel chronicles the life of Lola Hart, a 12 year old girl whose family falls into the lower echelons of a failing New York society. She loses her comfortable life, moves into a new neighbourhood and is forced in the midst of swelling instability and violence to adapt to survive. Riots, poverty, an outbreak of hate crimes and tuberculosis, environmental nuclear contamination, and the President is off playing golf.
Part 1: The Theory and Methodology
I will first go over some basic critical legal theory to set the groundwork for my analysis of the novel. Law is complicit in creating and perpetuating inequality. This goes straight to the heart of critical legal theory; law gives the illusion of equality because it purportedly treats everyone the same way, but in being blind to all background factors (eg. differences in wealth, gender, race and opportunity) it actually amplifies the inequalities while celebrating unity.
Law also constitutes part of the societal ideological apparatus that keeps us individualised and divided. For example, we often think of our own human rights / contractual rights, which give us power over others – dividing and individualising us. The adversarial system of justice in place in the UK, where it is me versus you in court, fractures rather than unites.
Furthermore, Alan Hunt, in a scathing Marxist critique of law, highlighted the state’s hypocrisy in labelling certain forms of violence legal, while others not. For example, the state can employ its armed forces to invade another, which is legal, but an individual’s use of violence against another, whatever the reason, is not. The state becomes the ultimate arbiter on what forms of violence is or is not legal, which is hypocritical because it employs violence, through police and the armed forces, for its own political goals.
However, to truly understand the heart of Random Acts of Senseless Violence is to expand our definition and conception of violence itself. Yes, the state sanctions physical force against offenders. Typically, the police may use force in arresting, detaining and executing an individual. However, there also exists another form of violence – slow violence. If an individual is denied their basic rights of food and housing, they end up hungry and homeless. For example, the University of Bristol’s Katie Bales and Victoria Canning, in their research into the asylum-seeking community, have illustrated that asylum seekers are often kept alive as ‘bare life’. The states meet their bare obligations in affording them a pittance to live on, keeping them alive, but the punitive living allowances and conditions, for example dictating that they may not work nor live in certain areas, renders their existence to purposeless, bare life. This is known academically as necropolitics.
The term ‘necropolitics’ refers to state-employed slow violence, where the powerful leverage social, political and legal power to decide how some must live and others die. Necropolitics is a weapon in the increasing arsenal of the neoliberal state which divides and conquers the working class and the poor. Labelling each person directly responsible for getting and acquiring what they need to survive is cruel, and doubly hypocritical because, as Covid-19 has shown, we all rely on other people for food, water and services. No one is truly independent from others, and we are all a community reliant on each other.
In the UK, Parliamentary Sovereignty means that the Parliament of the day may put through whatever law it wants to, but law is politically charged, with the ability to treat different groups vastly different. For example, the Austerity measures employed within the UK, aiming to reduce government spending to pay off government debt, has crippled social infrastructure up and down the country, with horrendous results for the ordinary working class; we need look no further than the staggering pre-Covid statistics that 120,000 people in the UK died due to Austerity cuts to the NHS. It is the state’s choice to employ slow violence against its people, where the least well off suffer the most, and law ultimately gives bad, unconscionable political measures their legal legitimacy.
Before I begin my analysis proper, I would like to quickly touch on the law and literature methodology. Critical legal theory is sometimes complex and inaccessible, but we all read fiction. In particular, I believe Science Fiction has limitless potential in illustrating, through imagination and other plot devices, the worlds that we want to work towards, and the ones we so very desperately must avoid. I believe that a fusion of literature texts as the sources and critical legal theory as the lens would result in readily accessible, interesting, and highly relevant analysis which also enhances our critical knowledge of what the law, beyond the books, does.
Part 2: The Text
There is a lot to be said about the crapsack world in which Lola Hart inhabits. Both of her parents lose their jobs (screenplay writer and untenured university professor) once the economy starts to tank, and transition into more unstable and unsustainable work. There’s a child reformation business which offers rehabilitation programmes for ill-behaved children, but it’s in reality a scam where they purposefully mistreat children to the point of suicide, for if the child commits suicide, they do not have to refund the fees to their parents. There’s bosses who abuse workers, children who set homeless people on fire out of boredom, riots, five presidential assassinations in a year, and lots of violence.
One of the chilling ways in which Womack presents the narrative is the text itself, which is a series of diary entries detailing twelve-year-old Lola’s transformation over a mere six months, from February to July. Before her transformation, she goes about her life with blissful ignorance and innocence. For example, it is obvious that one of her private school friends is being sexually abused by her father, but all Lola thinks is how strange she is acting. This narrative device also lends the text its brilliance; after being exposed to physical and slow violence, her innocence is shattered forever because she grows to understand the violence latent in society and knows that survival means employing violence herself. Six months later, Lola is a hardened street criminal, with weapons, wit and words to match, the novel ends with her abandoning her diary and falling deeper into the well of violence.
Lola’s diary was given to her as a birthday gift by her parents, who knew that bad things were coming and wanted her to write such that she would always remember the good times. At her darkest, lowest and loneliest moments, Lola’s diary, personified as “Anne”, is her best and only friend. Throughout the novel, Lola’s family tries its best to cling to the past, but Lola loses everything and everyone she had through the transformation, eventually deciding to cast Anne out as well, a symbolic severing of the final tie that she had to her previous life. The exposure to and participation in violence has irreversibly changed her such that she may never go back to who she was; that she may never regain her former life and its values.
Analysing the themes of crime, legitimacy and violence reveals many parallel concerns to the critical legal theory ideas raised above. After Lola’s family moves and she is acquainted with several other local girls around her age, she loosens her inhibitions to violence and commits the occasional crime to get by. This perfectly illustrates the Marxist critique of Hegel – where Hegel believed that individuals are free to choose and decide their own destiny, Marx asserted that it is social conditions, not choices, that create people. Lola’s new environment transforms her, indisputably for the worse, especially where she takes up crime and violence to get by. Her family runs out of money and is barely keeping ahead of debt collectors, so her mother doesn’t question where Lola’s money comes from, she is just happy to have it. The family unit, like the example of asylum seekers mentioned above, lives bare life. When in poverty, survival takes priority over everything else, resulting in dehumanising living conditions.
In a pivotal moment, after Lola commits murder in revenge, her friend Iz tells her that there must be a reason and purpose in any violence that is committed. Because Lola didn’t reveal her motivations to her victim, Iz feels that the violence was senseless. But Womack juxtaposes personal, individual acts of violence against the vast acts of the state, and by rapidly alternating between instances of state violence and personal violence, the reader empathises with the latter and comes to truly understand it as a symptom of the former.
For example, families in poverty are left on their own. After Lola’s father fails to secure a contract for his screenplay and the family moves, he takes on, against immense personal reservation, a customer service job with a bookstore. His boss is cruel, abusive, and exploitative. This wouldn’t be too far-fetched from modern headlines, but Womack shows the knock-on effects of harsh working conditions not just on the worker, but his family as well. His family begins to see less and less of him, he spends his off-time just recovering from the fatigue and stress of work, and it all culminates in his sudden heart attack where Lola discovers his limp body, sitting upright but not moving. He has been literally worked to death. The abuse wrought by Lola’s father’s boss abruptly changes her life forever; one moment her father is there, and the next he simply isn’t. The boss even verbally abused the mourning family, threatening to send his lawyers after them because he overpaid Lola’s father in a previous paycheck.
Because he gradually took Lola’s father away from her, and that Lola’s father’s death shattered her family, Lola bore a grudge against him, eventually culminating in her murdering him with her father’s baseball bat in his apartment. Womack chose not to juxtapose him as the typical bourgeois/Bezos type of boss; interestingly, as Lola shadowed him into his apartment complex, she remarked that “It weirded me sudden that Mister Mossbacher owned a store but housed in a building like ours.” He didn’t lead a comfortable life, but he exploited the power that an employer has over a worker as an avenue for his own stress. The inherent inequalities in bargaining strength between an employer and an employee, where an employee is in reality coerced to work because he must work or his family will starve, enables such treatment. Not only does contract and employment law ignore this inequality in bargaining positions, but politically charged law also legitimises the slow violence which encourages aggressiveness and abusive behaviour towards others.
Furthermore, the state employs more conventional violence against its people. To quash rising unrest, the President sends in the National Guard to conduct a military occupation of several New York districts. Despite being barely 12-15, Lola and her friends are sexually catcalled by the forces. On one occasion, Lola’s flat is raided by a SWAT team. Only her, her mother, and her friend Iz were in the flat, and she and Iz were naked and lying together, resulting in them being humiliated by the police. The raiding officers smash nearly every possession in their house, Lola’s mother’s valuable medicine goes suspiciously missing after the raid, and then the police realise that they didn’t even get the correct address anyway, but are satisfied thinking it would be a good warning to their targets. While Lola sits in her broken home, the officers leave without any repercussions. The parallels to centuries of police oppression in the US are clear, but it is this stark contrast that Womack illustrates; state-sanctioned violence is of an immensely destructive nature, more so than personal violence, even if one is innocent but caught in the crosshairs, and in this particular instance, Womack calls it out for what it is – both random (wrong address) and senseless (inflicts harm without purpose).
During a protest against the military occupation which ends in a riot, Lola is assaulted and badly injured by a riot cop. The novel illustrates many dimensions of racial, gender, and sexuality-based discrimination, all of which could warrant their own analysis. For example, Lola is shunned by the girls in her former private school when the rumour goes around that she is ‘queer’ (she actually does embrace some lesbianism towards the end of the novel), or that she initially, passing for a white person, is not entirely welcome within the new neighbourhood comprising mostly racial minorities and oppressed groups. But none of this matters during the riots because while Lola and the other protesters are assaulted, a limousine sails right through, its occupants untouched and untouchable. Lola wrote: “When you firstglanced (the protest) showed like a black ocean but when you closed in you saw all types in on it, black white Asian and Latin.” Womack’s message here is clear – regardless of how you are oppressed, gender, race, class, sexuality, or an intersection of multiple categories, only the rich and powerful will be truly safe and removed from it.
Hence, Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a tragedy, not just because the dystopian future the novel predicts seems right around the corner and we and those we know are already experiencing the consequences of hard and slow violence. And yet, the people are not powerless. In the face of cruelty, it is the kindness in the novel that offers its characters what little solace there is to be given. For example, Lola would have been murdered in her neighbourhood had she not been ‘adopted’ and taught the ways of survival by Iz and her friends. Iz’s crew, the Death Angels, feed and protect various other young girls in the neighbourhood – with no mention nor asking of compensation (even though they have to hustle and steal to be able to do so). Another glimmer of hope also arises where Lola’s father’s previous scriptwriting guild pays for his funeral. Womack almost seems to suggest that it is the human values of compassion and solidarity, standing against the hard brutal oppressive machinations of administration, bureaucracy, policing and law that is the lower classes’ best hope for survival.
In this aspect, the presence of an overwhelming state violence, against group/common solidarity, explains the safe space that Lola and her friends’ inhabit, physically and metaphorically. The group hangs out in an abandoned building that one of them, Jude, lives in. The abandoned building possibly symbolises how the girls have fallen through the cracks in society and live and operate outside of ‘conventional’ society, but to me it shows their tenacity in being willing to live by their own terms, taking something that politics broke and remaking it to work, and not that which society enforces. Jude’s most prized possession is a Russian-made rifle that she planned to use against police brutalising others, symbolising the willpower of the community, however weak against the sheerness of a state’s war/violence machines, to defend itself against external oppression. The Death Angels may resemble ‘stereotypical thugs’ in their style, language, actions and methods, but their values of care and community defence give them an angelic quality indeed.
To end my analysis on a more optimistic note, we must also remember that the state itself is an abstract entity, but us human beings are physical and real. No government or upper class acts on its own; they live distant lives (and hence, the limousine in Womack’s novel is very symbolic) and appropriate others to carry out their commands of conventional and slow violence. In Womack’s novel, the police, riot cops, and National Guard present are but individuals given an elevated status of power to carry out the sovereign’s commands. The political will of the sovereign and bourgeois falls upon legal and political commands to others, which can be rejected and declined. And I hope, if I shall ever be in that position someday, to acknowledge the violence that my actions may cause and say no in solidarity. To say no, not in the name of the law, but in the name of justice. We might be products of our social conditioning, as Marx posited, but he too believed in the ability of the oppressed to change it.
I would strongly encourage any interested reader to check out Random Acts of Senseless Violence for themselves. I also hope that this post has proven informative and engaging and has piqued your interest in the law and literature methodology.
Samantha Bester is a recent alumnus of the Bristol Law Faculty and never crosses a picket line. To talk Science Fiction, Solidarity, and Shredded Cheese, don’t hesitate to get in touch with them at samanthamaybester(at)outlook.com