REVIEW: The Times
28th June, 2003
This unforgiving satire of multinational capitalism begins promisingly enough, depicting what life will be like in the USA Nation, a buzzing hive of hugely competitive companies that extend across Japan, Australia and, of course, the United Kingdom. It is a world in which everybody has been privatised and everything (truth, beauty, justice) is judged in terms of profit and loss.
According to Max Barry, this is what you can expect in the not-too-distant future: ambulances that don't pick up accident victims unless they have already signed their annual service agreement or, at the very least, possess a reliable charge card; a fully-privatised police force that runs its own prisons and hires itself out for contract killings; serf-like employees who take the name of their company as their own, such as John Nike; and the good people in the business of selling athletic shoes pioneering an exciting new idea called "guerilla marketing," which involves hiring freelance assassins to promote the notion that their shoes are so good that people are actually killing for them. Sure, an advertising budget is important, but nothing is better than word-of-mouth.
This is a world where all kids go to schools run by McDonald's and Mattel, and every teenage girl - even if she lives in Melbourne - is a Valley Girl. Hayley McDonald's, for example, feels pretty sure that she "aced" her latest mid-term with the following oral report: "Why I Love America. America is the greatest group of countries in the world because we have freedom. In countries like France, where the Government isn't privatised, they still have to pay tax and do whatever the Government says, which would really suck. In the USA, we respect individual rights and let people do whatever they want."
Eventually, however, a hero shows up to save the say. From these mean, well-logoed streets emerges Jennifer Government, a former advertising executive who decides to do good and put bad guys in jail. Jennifer is a single mum who loves her smart, winsome daughter, Kate. She needs to meet a good man (and does), but, wouldn't you know it, Jennifer's nemesis, an evil international financier, decides that the best way to get back at Jennifer is to kidnap her daughter. This, though, gets Jennifer really mad.
You may have noticed that at this point an interesting book has gone horribly wrong. Barry can be very funny. He has some good narrative ideas, but then he sells everything out to Hollywood before Jennifer Government has really begun. It is not too surprising to learn, therefore, that this book comes with a publicity sheet letting us know that it has already been sold to George Clooney and that the script is being written up as we speak. One imagines that scripts for books such as this might even be started before the novel itself is finished. In fact, Barry already has his own website, while his publicist can even tell you how many hits it received last week.
As this novel expires in its own highly filmable and exasperating denouement, it leaves you remembering all the really powerful futuristic satires that did not give up so quickly. For example, the classic The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, Kornbluth's own brilliant novelette The Marching Morons or Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano. Then, of course, there is Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in which Barbie-like dolls are used to entertain the drug-enthralled inhabitants of a miserable, debt-ridden Mars. Or any of Robert Sheckley's brilliant stories from the Fifties and Sixties, in some of which he predicts the degeneration of television into life-endangering game shows - who would have thought it? Or the more recent novels and short stories of George Saunders, Thomas M. Disch, Paul McAuley, Kit Reed, Pat Cardigan and William Gibson.
There has been much good writing over the years about what a mess we are making of our collective future, and in the first 100 pages of his first novel Barry seems talented enough to make a real contribution to it. But next time out, he should take at least one eye off Hollywood, otherwise he might as well start publishing under the name of Max AOL/Time Warner.