Reviewed by Matthew Appleton
This review originally appeared in the October 2003 issue (#184) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
Imagine a novel where two umbrella organizations battle for control of consumers’ hearts and minds with ubiquitous and sometimes misleading advertising. These two groups will use any method to increase sales, even if it is questionably legal. In fact, the battle between the two groups gets downright nasty at times, with corporate warfare literally taking place. The government is little more than a figurehead, its power usurped by corporations. Elements of society toward the bottom of the economic totem pole are starting to rebel, attempting to change the system. It sounds an awful lot like Frederik Pohl’s and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. It also happens to sum up Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.
Yes, there are obvious parallels. For example, Merchants opens with a morally questionable discussion over using addictive drugs to improve beverage sales while Jennifer opens with a morally reprehensible debate over whether targeted killings will ultimately improve clothing sales (this discussion is picked up again in a fashion later in the book). Interestingly, at one point in Jennifer, Barry explicitly references Pohl’s and Kornbluth’s classic:
“John Nike was reading a novel called The Space Merchants; it had been reissued and he’d seen a review in Fast Company. They called it “prescient and hilarious,” which John was having a hard time agreeing with. All those old science fiction books were the same: they thought the future would be dominated by some hard-ass, oppressive government….
“He started to put his novel into his briefcase, then tucked it into the seat pocket instead. It was turning into a sly, anti-free market statement, and irony irritated him. There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. There was no place in marketing far that either.” (p. 115-116)
Yet, despite the blatant reference and tongue-in-cheek criticism — Nike’s opinions stem from the viewpoint of a corporate executive who has exploited the system for incredible personal gain — Jennifer Government is neither an attempt to update Space Merchants nor some sort of response to it. According to an email exchange I had with the author, he was halfway through writing Jennifer when he read Space Merchants, thus making the similarities “more of a coincidence.” Lending credence to his statement is the fact that this is Barry’s second satirical venture into the world of marketing and consumerism. His first and previous novel, Syrup, was much more mainstream with virtually no recognizable genre elements.
So how to react to Jennifer Government? Putting aside the incredible similarities to Pohl & Kornbluth, Barry’s setup may seem familiar to many genre readers. Huge multinational corporations call all the shots, and the governments of the world do more to prop them up than actually regulate them. The populace is inundated with advertising of all forms — in one of the more satirical moments, one which brings to mind many public advocacy ads one normally finds in The Washington Post on any given weekday, the aforementioned John Nike orders a campaign titled “Where would you be without corporations?” In a different detail that brings to mind Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and the ability of characters to buy citizenship in a company, individual identities are made synonymous with corporations, with adults taking the name of their employer as their last name and children taking the name of the corporation running their school as their last name.
As a result of so many familiar tropes, genre readers will have little trouble immersing themselves in Jennifer. That familiarity allows you to easily follow the immediately unfolding chain of events. The starting point of the novel occurs when Hack Nike, a mid-level marketing manager, is asked by two John Nikes from the Guerrilla Marketing, New Products Department to assist them in a new campaign to help push their new product line, Nike Mercurys. He signs a contract agreeing to the work before reading it, and then finds out he must actually kill 10 people in an effort to give the shoes a dangerous aura that marketers feel will help increase sales. His attempt to make sure that the plot is actually carried out spirals out of control, leaving Hack out of a job and looking for revenge.
While sales do increase, the sloppy manner in which the job is executed sucks in a cast of others: Violet, Hack’s girlfriend and an unemployed computer programmer (hence, no last name); Jennifer Government, a government agent with a personal vendetta against the John Nike she used to date; Buy Mitsui, a stockbroker and witness to one of the contractually obligated murders; Billy NRA, nee Bechtel, a recent NRA recruit who, thanks to a case of mistaken identity, finds himself on the front lines of some of the NRA’s most important security and defense work.
At first, the subplots for each of these characters have a tangential quality, but they eventually start merging together as the novel builds to its climax. The Nike killings catch the attention of Jennifer Government, who is trying her best to bring the perpetrators to justice. When she finds out her former boyfriend is the mastermind behind the murders, it becomes a personal crusade. As she is tracking him down, John is busy using every means possible, including the military, in trying to topple both the government and Team Advantage, the marketing consortium that is the direct competitor of US Alliance, the consortium which owns Nike. Along the way, Jennifer and John both cross paths with the rest of the other characters, all of whom John exploits in his attempt to make US Alliance the undisputed economic and political power in the world.
Barry’s style befits both the story and the setting, and it reflects the lives of the characters. Barry’s writing is fast-paced, full of quick cuts and snappy exposition and dialogue. In portraying the fast-moving, short attention-span society (which is even faster and has a shorter attention span than our own), very few chapters last longer than a few pages. Within each chapter, Barry frequently jumps from one scene to the next-almost as if he constantly has his finger on a fast forward button. The characters are constantly in motion, and they rarely have the time to sit back and seriously reflect on the whirlwind of events. The few times they do, it’s only because events have completely bypassed them, which is usually only a temporary state. This lack of reflection is not a flaw; in fact, it enhances the overall effect of the novel.
So, is it fair to compare Jennifer Government to a classic like The Space Merchants? Probably not; it’s neither groundbreaking nor highly original in its presentation. In addition, the pace of the novel is so frantic that you need to stop occasionally just to assimilate all the information. However, Jennifer is not a run-of-the-mill thriller either. Even though Barry rarely lets it truly sink in, the social satire is ever-present and provides a nice backdrop to the almost frenetic pace of the story. And while he gives the reader little time to really absorb them, Barry also manages to make a few rather interesting points about the corrupting influence of huge conglomerates and organizations on society. Despite the fact it tackles well-mined themes, Jennifer Government is an engaging read that both entertains and does a satisfying job of skewering the corporate world.