Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government
© 2003 Max Barry
321 pages

A number of years ago some friends and I began playing the online game "NationStates" in which users create a nation and make daily decisions to shape its progress (or descent). The game was created by the author of Jennifer Government, Max Barry, partially as a way to amuse himself and partially as a way to advertise the book. I checked Jennifer Government out back in the day but never got around to finishing it -- but after returning to NationStates a month or so ago, I decided to look into Barry's other work once more. Jennifer Government is set in a world where the worst nightmares of some and the greatest dreams of others have come to life -- a world in which the government exists only to say "Hey, play nice!" and consumerism is god. Companies are more powerful than countries, especially as they join coalitions and sport private armies -- one of which is the NRA. Jennifer Government's world is one in which scenes like this can happen:

"Nine-eleven Emergency, how can I help you?"
"I need an ambulance. Quickly, a girl has been shot at the Chadstone Wal-Mart mall."
"Certainly, sir. Can you tell me the girl's name?"
"Hayley. Hayley something. Please, come straight away."
"Sir, I need to know if the victim is part of our register," the operator said. "If she's one of our clients, we'll be there within a few minutes. Otherwise I'm happy to recommend -- "
"I need an ambulance!" he shouted, and it was only when water splashed on [Buy's] hand that he realized he had started to cry. "I'll play for it, I don't care, just come!"
"Do you have a credit card, sir?"
"Yes! Send someone now!"
"As soon as I confirm your ability to pay, sir. This will only take a few seconds."
- p. 33

The girl -- shot by a Nike-paid assassin along with thirteen other teenagers trying to buy the new Nike shoes in an operation planned to boost sales, dies as Buy struggles to communicate his credit-card number to the dispatcher. There are other scenes like this when the utter callousness of Barry's world makes itself known -- like when Buy goes to an NRA store to purchase a gun and asks for the kind of pistol that might be best for suicide. The clerk cheerfully recommends a certain kind, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this man is planning on taking his life. People have been reduced by the corporate world to the point that they take their last names from their place of employ, and children take theirs from whichever company sponsors their school -- as the government is so reduced in power that it can only commence investigations as long as a private citizen is willing to pay.

Although the novel is a light-action thriller with some comedic aspects, it doubles as a critique of consumer culture now and what libertarianism might allow. The novel begins with Nike's "promotional campaign", at which point we are introduced to a host of characters: Hack Nike, a downtrodden cubicle-dweller who is tricked into doing the job (and who can't, so he subtracts it to the Police); Buy Mitsui, a French stock broker who moved to Australia (part of the United States, as are the Americas, India, Polynesia, and Oceania), who inadvertently causes the death of a young girl when he gives her money to buy the new Nike shoes, shoes she will soon die for; and Jennifer Government, the advertiser-turned-federal-agent who attempts to get to the bottom of the murders -- not only for the sake of the young people murdered, but because she harbors a vendetta against the man who engineered all of this, John Nike.

The book generally reads rather quickly, and the setting of course is quite interesting. I think I shall be reading more of Max Barry.


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