Barry, Max. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2003. 321pp. $12.95, paper back. ISBN: 1400030927.
Australian novelist Max Barry's second novel, Jennifer Government, develops the satirical critique of consumer culture he began in his first novel, Syrup, though now his themes move beyond the absurdities of marketing, taking on a dystopian future of total laissez-faire "capitalizm."
The world of Jennifer Government is one of unregulated greed, in which every country beyond the remnants of the European Union have become corporatized, American style. People take the names of the companies they work for, thus giving us a cast of characters like John Nike, Buy Mitsui, Billy NRA, and, of course, Jennifer Government herself. Many of the best and most frightening moments in the book are Barry's descriptions of extreme privatization that has turned everyday life into a for-profit enterprise. Thus all roads have tolls, primary schools are run by corporations like McDonald's and Mattel, and companies wage literal war against their competitors in a global environment that is no longer one of nation-states, but the "U. S. Federated Economic Blocs." Pointedly, most of the action takes place in the "Australian Territories of the USA" (7). Jennifer Government herself works as a federal agent investigating crimes. When Nike kills teenagers as part of a marketing campaign to promote its new sneakers (a necessary development since the teens cannot be counted on to kill one another for the shoes anymore), Jennifer takes the case, but not before she has to ask the family of one of the victims to mortgage their home to pay for the investigation. In the world of privatization, government agents must raise funds before they can pursue criminals. Jennifer finds herself drawn into a complex world in which the patsy Hack Nike and the unlucky Billy Bechtel become pawns in a game of corporate intrigue masterminded by the evil marketer John Nike.
Jennifer Government and Barry's first novel, Syrup, are both examples of leftist satires that take make the best use of the slick techniques of ultra-hip fiction -- Douglas Coupland and Chuck Palahniuk both come to mind -- but with a more readily legible political standpoint. Though some reviewers have faulted Barry for not measuring up to the literary standards of authors like J. G. Ballard, whose recent Super Cannes and Cocaine Nights cover some of the same territory, such comparisons seem misguided. Jennifer Government is unabashedly a work of popular fiction, drawing on the conventions of thriller plots and chase scenes pioneered by the likes of Tom Clancy and John Le Carré. His near future dystopianism is reminiscent of mass-market cyberpunk such Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, but his politics are informed by a thoroughly Marxist critique of global capitalism. Indeed, if Naomi Klein had written No Logo as a work of fiction, it would probably read much like Jennifer Government. For those readers with a taste for slick, pulp-fiction, it is refreshing to see it written by a leftist. However, Barry's fiction also raises interesting questions about the use of such styles as critical modes, and his work could be profitably read within the context of Marxist literature dramatizing critiques that too often remain available only in thoroughly academic criticism.
Western Illinois University