Belated book review: Max Barry's "Jennifer Government"

Until I picked up a copy of the paperback the other day, my familiarity with Max Barry's ubercorporate dystopian Jennifer Goverment came only through its corresponding web site, Nation States. The site, where you can design your own little government and shape its fate, was meant to generate interest in the young Australian novelist's 2003 book, which was much applauded by critics, named a notable book by New York Times and a Campbell Award finalist for best sci-fi of the year. And even before publication, Soderbergh and Clooney's Section 8 films optioned the rights, which they and Warner Bros. recently renewed.

That's a lot to cover; I'll start with the book. The synopsis, according to Barry himself:

Welcome to paradise! The world is run by American corporations (except for a few deluded holdouts like the French); taxes are illegal; employees take the last names of the companies they work for; the Police and the NRA are publicly-traded security firms; and the U.S. government only investigates crimes it can bill for.

Hack Nike is a Merchandising Officer who discovers an all-new way to sell sneakers. Buy Mitsui is a stockbroker with a death-wish. Billy NRA is finding out that life in a private army isn't all snappy uniforms and code names. And Jennifer Government, a legendary agent with a barcode tattoo, is the consumer watchdog from hell.

The marketing scheme Hack is duped into carrying out is the assasination of a few people who've just bought Nike's new $2,500 sneakers, to generate interest in the product by making it look as though the owners were killed by gang members who coveted their new shoes. Once he realizes what he's supposed to do (and he can't just back out - the contract is binding), he takes the matter to the Police Inc.... who offer to subcontract the slayings for him. They in turn sub-subcontract to the NRA, who go a little trigger-happy. It takes off from there.

The novel is something like the love-child of Orwell, Palahniuk and Gibson in its premise, and absolutely fascinating in its execution. Except for those moments I reminded myself I really ought to be reading another 100 pages of Russian literary theory, I literally couldn't put it down. Part of my absorption into it is how the characters, from single mother and federal field agent Jennifer Government to the student at a corporate-sponsored high school Haley McDonald's, become tied together - in who knows whom, who inadvertently caused the death of whom, and so on - and part of it is both delighting and recoiling in seeing how Barry's imagination takes corporate cult worship and hypercapitalism to its logical yet insane extreme.

(A chilling example is seen during one of the Nike shootings, where people decline to help a shot little girl since most of them refused to learn first-aid, to avoid potential lawsuits. Enter a privitized version of "911," which will be happy to dispatch an ambulance provided you can ensure payment ahead of time... so have your credit card standing by. And the government's response? It only has the funds to prevent crimes, not persue criminals after the fact... unless the families of victims can contribute to the budget.)

It's over the top, clearly, but in its own established logic allows the reader to take for granted why, say, the USA owns most of the world in the near future, or how it came to be that employees identify with their companies to the extreme that they take the brands as their own last name. It's the ultimate brand loyalty, and those with only a first name are immediately identified as the ultimate pariahs, the unemployed. The shades of Cyberpunk and '80s-style syndicate warfare it recalls are fun enough, but if you want to scare yourself reading this first go see The Corporation, which came out the same year. Then it shouldn't be too hard to trace for yourself the threads of how we got from here to there.

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The movie is in the scriptwriting stage now, with Louis Mellis and David Scinto (Sexy Beast) signed onto the project as of February. This is one of those books written in such a way a film treatment is very easy to picture as you read, and maybe even some actors come to mind. So far what I picture, personally, is Edward Norton as Buy Mitsui and Kevin Spacey as John Nike. Who knows.

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The NationStates site, meanwhile, can be enjoyed even without reading the book. It's a simple text-based game with no real goal except to mold your little state in your own image: you name it, choose or design its flag, then direct it through policies you establish and how you respond to regular occurances thrown at you, such as rising gas prices or student protest. The game will update you on the category your nation falls into, along a spectrum from bohemian paradise to fascist regime. Forums provide a multiplayer angle, with wars, trade and alliances.

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