The future is usually portrayed as a dystopic nightmare of oppression and limited freedom. In Max Barry’s novel Jennifer Government, the future is dystopic, but very livable. You see the government, that stalwart body of justice, law, and order, is now privatized. Nothing can be done unless the revenue is raised to do it. Someone kills your loved one; you better have the money to mount a trial. Of course, the power in this world has become vested in those places that have the most money, corporations. So the battle-lines are drawn—the government takes on the corporations with unadulterated fervor.
And they need to be opposed. The corporations, bearing their actual names (a genius device), gives guerrilla marketing a whole new, almost literal, meaning. From the murder of fourteen teenagers to sell shoes to the attempts to assassinate the government president, the corporations will stop at nothing to gain that niche market. There are even alliances of companies that use the NRA (yes, that NRA) to wage war on each other. Amid all of this corporate chaos, Jennifer Government emerges to restore order, or at least snag the bad guy behind it all.
The names are where Barry’s genius really emerges. As I said before, Barry uses actual corporation names. Nike sells shoes, the NRA sells its services as corporate mercenaries, ExxonMobil launches a computer virus to cripple Shell. The list goes on and on. And the characters…Jennifer Government? She works for the government. John Nike. Violet (She is unemployed). Billy NRA. Claire Sears. Whichever corporation you work for is the last name you adopt; even if you transfer jobs. One minute you are Bob Nike, then you are Bob Wal-Mart. The eeriest aspect of this naming device is the schools. Schools are owned by corporations as well. Kate Mattel (Government) is Jennifer’s daughter.
This balance between our admiration for the larger-than-life heroes and our wariness at a society that owns our children is masterfully maintained throughout. One minute, you are rooting for Jennifer Government and her partner, Calvin. Then you are sympathizing with Billy NRA as his quest for finding a good skiing destination leads him further down the path to becoming a NRA assassin.
Perhaps the most chillingly balanced scene in the entire novel is near the beginning during the massacre at the Nike Town store. One of the characters, Buy Mitsui, a stockbroker, attempts to save a young girl who has been brutally shot in the back of the neck, all in an effort to sell more Nike shoes. As he tries to heroically staunch the bleeding, everyone else ignores his calls for help. Then the real scare starts. Buy dials 9-1-1 and tries to get an ambulance. He can’t get an ambulance mobilized unless he pays for it. Buy is more than willing to do so, but the operator requires pre-payment. The scene ends with Buy futilely reading his card number into the phone as the operator continuously messes it up while the girl bleeds out on the floor.
That darkness emerges frequently, but not nearly enough. One of the flaws of the novel is its tone. It is a satire, but, unlike Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, it never brings us to the edge of the abyss to let us sneak a peek. The latter portion of the novel gives way to raucous action sequences that bring up the ghosts of Riggs and Murtaugh more than Yossarian and Orr.
For all that distraction, we still get a smart critique of the culture of “capitalism” that seems to predict the real-life horrors we’ve seen in the past 4 years. Villains like John Nike are nothing more than fiction-clad Bernie Madoffs, bringing destruction through their own personal quests for more. As you turn the last page, you realize, with sudden satisfaction, that you’ve read a satire of capitalism that is willing to give that system a chance. The usual down-with-capitalism-socialism-will-save-us shtick gets old after the fifth time you teach 1984. Jennifer Government is a rollicking, fast-paced read with a smart economic bent. You’ll like it, and I bet students will, too.