REVIEW by Jonathan Edwards

NWR Issue 107

Random Hits

by William Muir

William Muir’s second novel, Random Hits, comes to us via a circuitous and complex publishing history. Having published a successful first novel, The 18th Pale Descendant, which won The Commonwealth Writers Prize First Novel Award, Muir was unfortunate enough to find that the publisher of his second novel went bankrupt. This tale, as outlined in the prefatory ‘Author’s Note,’ reveals much about the fickleness of the publishing industry, but should also make us grateful that we finally have Random Hits, this page-turning novel of ideas, available both in e-book and paperback format.

The novel tells us the story of James, a character somewhere between scallywag and political activist, who is offered the possibility of freedom from jail. In return, he is expected to join a group of other ex-cons who are tasked with the responsibility of keeping the streets safe. This essentially involves meting out on-the-spot, highly violent punishments to the invariably working-class small time offenders they encounter. The ‘reprimands’ they give are often written up in the euphemistic language of their paperwork as ‘medical.’ As James memorably puts the novel’s hook, ‘You’re using criminals to police criminals.’

From this point of view, Random Hits inhabits the same sort of territory as dystopian fictions such as 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, and it is here that we might encounter our first reservation about this novel. A Clockwork Orange succeeds because of the seriousness and complexity of its thinking about politics and crime and punishment, but its success is down far more to the incredible voice of its central character. In Random Hits, James’ voice is far less distinctive. Indeed, one might find it difficult to pin down differences between the ‘Author’s Note’ and the voice of the character, apart from the increased use of profanity. And voice is not just voice, of course: it affects the impact of every area of a novel. The violence is less grippingly visceral, our emotional connection to characters much less strong, when that distinctive voice is absent.

Comparing any novel to A Clockwork Orange is of course unfair, and in any case Muir’s novel has a number of interesting features which Burgess’ masterwork lacks. Chief among these is the excellently drawn character of Susie. Her chief fictional predecessor would be someone like Ellie in Nick Hornby’s coming-of-age novel About A Boy. Or better yet, an Ellie grown up a bit, her rock-and-roll nihilism having developed into increasing articulacy and political activism. Susie is a force of nature, a great good exciting thing in the novel. Although she and James claim that ‘our first rule had been no falling in love’, their relationship is to some extent held up in opposition to an unpleasant political regime. The way they feel about each other has similar significance to how Winston and Julia feel about each other in 1984.

There is, though, one caveat to that comparison. Random Hits is far, far more explicit about sex. As well as being a dystopian novel, the book is a Bildungsroman, so I suppose it’s important that James’ first sexual encounter is dealt with. The description of it, though, goes on for pages and pages, with detailed post-porn profanity combining with sentences like ‘The world became her mouth.’ Good writing about sex is so rare – one thinks here of the brilliant poems of Greta Stoddart – and one reaches the end of this section of Random Hits crying for a better editor for a book which in places is so very strong.

One of these chief strengths is the way in which Muir grips the reader. He is, simply, skilled at making us keep turning the pages. Chapters which end with sentences like ‘He is coming to get me tomorrow’ and ‘Maybe he wasn’t dead after all’ keep the reader engrossed and, while the tension might sometimes flag as political ideas are discussed, the pace cracks along all the way through to the end – the last sentence is stunning. There are a number of occasions where you yearn for Hollywood to buy up this novel immediately.

If it were to do so, Muir would find himself free of the terrible publishing situation he outlines in his ‘Author’s Note’, and we could enjoy the triumph of a clearly talented writer. While Random Hits is not a perfect novel, it does offer us some interesting ideas, a rollicking read and, in Susie, a very memorable character. While computers serve many useful functions, the most useful thing that can be done with them, for many of us, is of course to chuck them out through the damn window. But maybe it’s time for a re-think: without e-publishing, we would be robbed of the opportunity of reading this very engrossing and enjoyable novel.

Jonathan Edwards won the Costa poetry prize, 2015, with his debut collection for Seren, My Family & Other Superheroes.




       


previous review: The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas
next review: Cheval 7



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