Jennifer Government

Posted: October 1, 2009 in Books
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By Max Barry

Review © 2009 G.N. Jacobs

How much is enough? Would you sell cigarettes knowing how many will die? Would you kill 14 of your own customers in a crazy marketing scheme designed to show how valuable your sneakers are? Such questions infuse Max Barry’s satire Jennifer Government with a dread of corporate misdeeds past, present and future.

Picture, if you will, a near future world where family surnames have been replaced by corporate names and there is no government to speak of, except a minimally invasive watchdog force that has to get funding before launching an investigation. Meet Field Agent Jennifer Government, a single mom armed to the teeth in the Melbourne office, out to stop corporate misdeeds wherever she finds them. Things don’t go well for Jennifer at the mall, NRA thugs subcontracted to Nike by way of the Police shoot up to 14 customers to make the latest shoe line no one can afford seem irresistible. Jennifer falls onto the windshield of a Mercedes seriously injured.

Jennifer becomes an anti-corporate avenger searching for proof that Nike hired the killings done. She needs to find Hack Nike, the lowly merchandising officer, duped into patsy status. Just enough hearsay says that John Nike, Vice President of Guerilla Marketing, is the officer responsible. Jennifer has powerful personal motives for bringing John Nike to justice stemming from the time they were John and Jennifer Maher when they worked for Maher Advertising. Perhaps Jennifer will also explain the mysterious barcode tattoo below her left eye?

I found Max Barry’s satire very nearly brilliant when looking at it in broad strokes. If the writer wishes to warn us about corporations in an over the top satire, then sure, a regional Nike executive will order ten killings to boost sales. This is no more ridiculous than filmmakers positing that reality shows and sports will logically expand to include murder as we saw a few years ago in Series 7 or the first and only Rollerball.

Not all satires and other predictions of our social future have to come true for them to hold power. If we let things be we may end up in such dystopian futures where the NRA becomes a paramilitary force that can kill anyone and get away with it unless the victim’s families can pay for prosecution. Or we can choose to continue that blissfully inefficient and entertaining government that stands between our sins and those that would exploit them. Jennifer Government fills this literary niche with great skill and with a lot of firepower.

Max Barry chose in many places to gloss over the small details of the minutia of regular lives set against this wild romp that spans Melbourne, London and Los Angeles. There could have been a slight bit more of interaction between Jennifer Government and her daughter, Kate Mattel (named after the school). I didn’t feel the frustration of a mother who has to keep breaking a promise to get a dog as much as another writer might have created. But still, as I like to say, “if you’re looking at the scenery you’re missing the story.”

If Barry were to do a book without the science fiction overtones I would suggest getting on more planes and visiting places. I didn’t feel like the scenes in Los Angeles or London really reflected the cities I remember and know. But, then the point of this book is that unchecked corporate greed will turn the whole world into carbon copies of some hypothetical bland city that doesn’t exist, yet.

What I really appreciated was the bare bones of the police procedural underlying the warning. Jennifer Government is not some super-cop investigator because, as always, the foot soldiers in the vast corporate war are very nearly morons that escape by sheer luck. Her ability to survive promiscuous gunfire was impressive and equally lucky. I could almost pretend that Jennifer was a real cop doing battle with evil corporate officers bent on nothing less than world domination.

The element that tickled my ribs the most was the reveal of the Big Bad. The case becomes more than a sneaker marketing campaign or a brutal hostile takeover fight between Shell and ExxonMobil. Let’s just say, I will never look at customer loyalty programs like frequent flier miles and discount cards quite the same way again. Actually, I think I was already suspicious of these programs, which is why this element tickled me so much.

Jennifer Government raises the bar for all of us who like to satirize corporate behavior in hopes someone will listen and spend a little more time off the corporate fast track. Neither your time nor your money is wasted.


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