Max Barry

Little Brown Book Group (2004)

ISBN: 9780349117621

Reviewed by Kathryn Linge (this review was first published in February 2008)

There are three different ways I could start this review.

1) Jennifer Government would make an excellent movie (the positive opening);

2) Jennifer Government has a lot of similarities with The Da Vinci Code (the neutral opening);

3) Overall I was disappointed with Jennifer Government (the negative opening).

All of these are true.

All of that is all very well and good, but what’s the book it’s all about? Jennifer Government is set in a dystopian reality in which most nations are controlled by the United States, except for the ‘socialist’ EU. Real power is given over to for-profit corporations, while the government’s power is extremely limited. Taxes are illegal, and everyone loves working for their company so much that they change their surname to that of their company. Jennifer Government is just one of a multitude of characters that Barry switches between to tell the story. Once darling of the corporate world, Jennifer has turned her back on it to work for the government (hence her last name), who’s only role is to prevent crime (although budget constraints mean they only investigate crimes if they can bill someone for it). Jennifer still has hang-overs from the corporate world, however, including a mysterious barcode tattoo under her eye, and a personal score she needs to settle.

The book opens with a lowly merchandising officer, Hack Nike, coerced into signing a contract to kill teenagers and steal their new Nike Mercury sneakers (improving the shoe’s street cred and sales along the way). Unable to perform the hit himself, Hack accidentally sub-contracts the job to the Police and the NRA (now both publicly-traded security firms ), setting off a domino effect of crime which multiplies around the world. Jennifer is contracted by a grieving family to investigate the crimes, and teams up with Buy Mitsui, a stockbroker who is having doubts about his job and his life – and who is also a witness to the first Nike shootings. Hijinks ensue, as an escalating guerrilla marketing plan leads rival corporations from the world’s two over-arching brand loyalty programs, US Alliance and Team Advantage, turn against each other in a bid for total world domination.

My main problem with this book is that I just didn’t buy it. While I’m all for empowered female leads, in this case I found Jennifer a bit too ‘Lara Croft’ – very beautiful and very capable with a gun, but with no real, human, frailties. Jennifer’s only weakness is her eight year old daughter, Kate. Jennifer loves her daughter but has trouble balancing parenting with her work, particularly when she’s trying to settle her old scores. When Kate’s life is put in danger because of Jennifer’s work, Jennifer’s subsequent guilt for not spending more time with her daughter was straight Hollywood join-the-dots.

Jennifer Government can also be read as a commentary on the continuing corporatisation of the world, a very timely and real issue. Many elements of Jennifer’s world resonate with the real world – schools sponsored by corporations, pre-payment for ambulances, the abolishment of welfare, weapon deregulation, legalized drugs sold in supermarkets, and privately owned roads with charged access. However, again, I just couldn’t accept the extreme to which Barry takes this idea. The world presented is basically now (or perhaps five years ago) but there’s no clear mechanism or historical event by which corporate power has so eroded government control. Perhaps I am being naive, as a recent reading of Frank Hardy’s Australian classic Power Without Glory tells us that all of Australian government is built on private interest. However, the extremes of no taxation and absolute corporate devotion described by Barry still seem impossible to me. Alternatively, perhaps Jennifer Government should be read it as an allegory rather than straight fiction. However, in this case, the story is so superficial on other levels, it’s hard to read into a deeper lever in this particular area.

Overall the word that best sums up Jennifer Government for me is superficial. Despite the apparent ‘fibre’ in the story, to me it’s mind candy and not much of it has stayed with me post-reading. Jennifer Government works well as pure entertainment. The short chapters (which is where the comparison to The Da Vinci Code comes in) and multiple points of view – five or more – are perfect for the attention deficit and would work beautifully as a fast-paced action movie. And, while perhaps I was hoping for something more thoughtful and less by numbers, I have to give kudos to Barry for the compelling shoot-em-up ending, as the giant corporations start turning on each other. Barry also gets point for setting much of the action in Melbourne (as well as other international locations such as LA and London). It was great to have such a ‘global’ story set in Australia.