Book Review: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

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I love Max Barry. He’s one of those writers that makes other writers think, “That’s brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?” Jennifer Government is the second book of his that I’ve read (the first being Lexicon) and it has only reinforced my perception of him, his ideas and his writing.

Jennifer Government weaves the stories of multiple people into a single narrative. Set in a future I hope we never succumb to, the world is dominated by powerful corporations. The Police is a private company, essentially a for-hire security force, and its main competitor is the NRA, a portrayal of them that is eerily on track in the real world. The Government has been reduced to an organisation that tries to prevent crime but has nothing to do with prosecuting it once it has happened and depends on the financial contributions of victims to track down perpetrators. If you call 911, you have to recite a valid credit card number before help will be dispatched. Oh, and Australia and many other countries are now part of the USA Territories. Scary.

Individuals take on the last name of the organisation they work for, thus the title. Hack Nike is a lowly merchandising officer for Nike. He is visiting the water cooler on a different floor to where he normally works when John Nike and John Nike (don’t worry, it’s not as confusing as it might sound), President and Vice President of Guerrilla Marketing offer him a job. He signs a contract without reading it and without realising what it requires him to do, which is kill ten random people in Nike stores and make it look like a “gang thing” in an effort to increase the desirability of Nike Mercurys, the latest must-have pair of sneakers that cost thousands. Hack can’t bring himself to do it so he outsources the contract to the Police.

Jennifer Government is a field agent who gets wind of the plan. She’s in position to try to stop one of the killings set to take place at the Chadstone Wal-Mart but is shot and thrown four stories, landing on a Mercedes Benz for sale below. While Mercedes Benz sues her for the cost of the destroyed car that broke her fall, she tries to track down the people responsible after the parents of the one of the victims agree to sell their house to finance the investigation.

If it all sounds like a horribly far-fetched dystopian future, it is but it’s probably one that’s not too far away if we all aren’t careful. Barry uses big name corporations to skewer the path of consumerism that we’re on and his publisher was required to include a long-winded disclaimer that the references to real companies are “used simply to illustrate the increasingly important role played by large corporations in the future and not to denigrate them in any way. However, some people (whom we shall call ‘lawyers’) get very uptight when you describe large corporations masterminding murders. So let’s be clear: this is a work of fiction set in the future.”

This novel was published in 2003. Probably the only one Barry didn’t get right was the battle between Apple and Microsoft, where Microsoft is on top. But everything else is pretty spot on. Shell. Coca-Cola. Pepsi, McDonald’s and Mattel run the schools where the children are taught about consumerism and not much else. France is despised because it still has a government as we know it today. Insider trading is rampant and expected. Those who don’t have jobs or money are dismissed as lazy and stupid and deserving of their fate.

It’s a frightening and extreme version of a place the world is approaching. Money is the end goal and there are no limits to the measures to which people will go to get it. Even the good guys in this book are a little too far from doing the right thing.

There’s no happy ending or poetic justice and the world doesn’t change at the end of the book, probably because this version of society is too far gone for it to be wound back. It’s a cautionary tale for us today. And this book should be required reading in high schools so teenagers can see how we see them today. In fact, that’s exactly what this book is. It’s as if an American high school became the whole world.

The ending is a little too Hollywood, where the truly bad guy gets what’s coming to him (sort of), so I’ve given it 4 stars. But that’s two 4 star books from Max Barry out of two I’ve read. He’s very easy to read and his plots are so creative. I read this book in a single day because I had to know what happened and how it turned out. You’ll be surprised by how much it makes you think about the real world. Highly recommended.

4 stars

*First published on Goodreads 26 December 2015

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