Max Barry
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Jennifer Government

Vintage Books, TPB, © 2003, 320 pp, ISBN #1-40000-3092-7
Reviewed July 2004

Partway through Jennifer Government it struck me as peculiar that the author's last name is Barry, since the book reminded me of nothing so much as Dave Barry's novel Big Trouble They are both, effectively, the chronicle of a number of less-than-entirely-competent people set in motion around each other with big stakes - including their own lives and livelihoods - but mainly played for comical effect.

Jennifer Government takes place at some point in the future (I think the early 22nd century) when capitalism has decidedly won the war against, well, everything. The United States' reach has extended to Britain, Australia, all of the Americas, and many other places, while developing nations and the European Union struggle to hold to their own ideals (without a lot of success). Corporations rule, and the Government has been relegated to little more than a joke, trying to minimize the effects of corporate excess. People in the American bloc take their surnames from their employers. So we have our cast: Hack Nike, John Nike, Billy NRA, Hayley McDonalds, Buy Mitsui, Violet (an entrepreneur), and Jennifer Government.

The action mostly takes place in Australia, beginning with the credulous Hack being roped into a plan by John to sell sneakers at ridiculous mark-ups. Hack being too much of a wuss to go along with the gory details (it'd be nice to say he's acting on his conscience, but at this point it really is that he's too much of a wuss), he subcontracts the job out, which results in a number of children being killed, including one who dies in the arms of Buy Mitsui leading him to a crisis of conscience. Jennifer Government tries to foil the plan, but fails, leading to demonstrations of just how fanatical she is about her job.

Though his superiors are not entirely happy with John's efforts, John ends up using the plot as a stepping stone to greater power in the intercorporate alliance of which Nike is a part. Meanwhile, he tries to tie up the loose end of Hack, but fails, resulting in Hack and his girlfriend Violet going on the run. Violet then demos her cutting-edge software to the opposing corporate alliance, leading to yet more hijinks. The situation gradually escalates until the entire status quo of western civilization is threatened - and deservedly so, to the minds of a few.

Jennifer Government has been described as a satire, but the veneer of social commentary is so thin it's hard to take it seriously as such. It's really just an out-and-out farce, and it succeeds to the extent that it pulls you along for its ride. It definitely has a few yuks (keep in mind that I'm a very hard sell when it comes to written humor), and the pages turn pretty quickly, and those are certainly points in its favor.

It may not be worth criticizing the plot or characters very deeply. The characters are, by-and-large, amazingly stupid (Billy, Hack) or so tunnel-visioned that they may as well be amazingly stupid (John, Buy, Jennifer). Buy is really the only particularly smart character in the book, and he's certainly the most sympathetic. He's also the only one with a significant story arc, and Jennifer's is simplistic (revenge against John), and Hack's personal growth feels truncated. Billy and John are little more than plot devices.

The story itself is mostly a series of ridiculous and therefore comical situations, usually designed for people to be witty. This is not a bad thing. It does lead to a disappointing resolution of the plot, in that the larger issues considered in this future society are not really addressed at the end. John brings up some important points about the social structure, and the resolution is little more than "Well, no, we've decided we're not interested." Bummer, man. The good guys have a happy ending, and the supporting cast (Hack, Violet, Billy) fade into the distance with their situations still rather up-in-the-air. Still, this is par for the course for roller-coaster-ride comedies like this, so I can't complain too much.

If you're looking for an entertaining read, Jennifer Government ain't a bad choice. (If you're going on a long plane flight, bring something else, too, as you'll finish this before you arrive.) If you're looking for some deeper satire, though, I'd suggest looking elsewhere.

hits since 5 July 2004.

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