REVIEW: Boston Globe

Eric Noonan
27th February, 2003

Author's Note: I've removed half a sentence from this review because it gave away part of the ending.

In the not-too-distant future outlined in "Jennifer Government," the corporation - not the customer - is king. Our free market has gone berserk: A handful of giant corporations run the world, and a 911 dispatcher won't send an ambulance until she's collected a credit card number for payment.

Taxes are illegal, and employees even carry the name of their corporation as a surname in this new futuristic fantasy-thriller from Australian author Max Barry. Employees do have the right to switch jobs and last names, but they may have to pay legal damages if their replacements turn out to be less efficient.

Compared to Big Nike, Big Brother seems positively quaint. The story begins with the shoe giant contracting a low-level merchandising clerk named Hack Nike to shoot 10 teenagers at the mall as part of a marketing campaign for a new line of sneakers that cost $2,500 a pair.

Hack has second thoughts about the scheme and goes to the police for help. But this isn't old-fashioned law enforcement; the police are out to make a buck themselves. They recommend that Hack subcontract the killings to them, and they tell him they'll commit the murders for $130,000.

"And you need ten capped, so there's a bulk discount," says Sergeant Pearson Police on closing the deal. Because employee loyalty trumps employee morality, Hack signs on.

The sneaker shootings draw out Jennifer Government, a former corporate-marketing wizard intent on nailing the murder plot mastermind: an adman named John Nike. Jennifer wants to prosecute John, but because the government is now a for-profit enterprise, she can't investigate unless the victims' families are willing to pay for justice.

The plot rockets forward on hyperdrive from there, full of chase scenes, shoot- outs, and body armor a la "The Matrix." Character development, unfortunately, is left in the dust. But Barry's imaginative free-market paradise is plenty entertaining. He is satirical down to the smallest detail: the corporate elementary school classrooms owned by Pepsi, Wal-Mart, and Mattel, and the legalization of insider trading, enthusiastically renamed "smart trading" by Wall Street. The globe is divided into a few large economic blocs - Australia has most recently been subsumed by the United States - and only a few European holdouts ("Here Be Tariffs," Barry notes wryly on his revisionist map) insist that corporations pay taxes.

Barry is 29, and his Generation X sensibilities seem sharpened to a fine point by disgust at rampant American consumerism, a feeling shared by many other young Australians and Europeans. He pays generous tribute to other futuristic novels, including sly asides to George Orwell's "1984" and the minor genre classic "The Space Merchants" by Frederik Pohl.

In an exchange between John Nike and another adman pitching a campaign featuring retro slogans such as "Loose Lips Sink Sponsorships" and blaring talking- head TV screens, the antihero gently mocks Orwellian attitudes. "You gotta be kidding me," John said. "The Government as all-powerful?"'

The plot eventually builds to a clash-of-the-titans climax over two massive consumer-loyalty programs (descendants of today's air miles/credit card deals) battling to the death for world domination. It's a somewhat overwrought conclusion, but still successful enough to prompt some readers to consider taking scissors to their frequent-flyer cards. In the end, Barry doesn't preach a pure brand of anticonsumerism; his cynicism is far more subtle and selective, leaving readers with more to laugh about than to fear.

This book markets itself as "a Catch-22 for the New World Order," but nobody will mistake "Jennifer Government" for Joseph Heller's wonderful novel. Barry's book simply hasn't got the heart, depth, or humanity of Heller's work, or of such futuristic classics as Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." But this novel is still fresh and very clever, if not terribly weighty.