Fiction: “Jennifer Government” by Max Barry

This is, I kid you not, the third time I have tried to write this entry. It’s hard, you guys — not only writing, but figuring out which angle to tackle with this book. Also, I’ve had the worst cold in history (yes, *all* of history), so that’s also been a delaying factor.

Outwardly, Jennifer Government is a fun “what if?” story. It takes place in an undetermined future year (according to that bastion of knowledge [and time-wasting], TV Tropes, it takes place “Twenty Minutes Into the Future”) where corporations and business have become more powerful than Government and individuality. A person takes the name of their company as their last name. Hence, Jennifer Government, who is as best as I can tell, equivalent to an FBI agent. Also, Hack Nike, John Nike, John Nike (there are two of them), Billy NRA, and Bill NRA. And yes, that confusion does play into a major plotline.

The Johns Nike are the ‘big bad,’ so to speak, of Jennifer Government. Their big idea (and the catalyst) – they’re releasing the new Big Deal Nikes, the Nike Mercury. The price tag is $5,000. And to make sure everyone and their brother wants them, they’re going to kill ten people who buy the Mercuries in order to gain street cred. Hack gets roped into killing those ten people when he goes to the wrong water cooler one day, and then because he’s a pussy in the first half of the book, he subcontracts the job out to the Police, who do not arrest him, but instead subcontract that out to the NRA.

It quickly becomes a mess, because yes, fourteen innocents to get killed. Then the Government gets called in, but by the parents of one of the victims, because the Government operates as a business and requires private funding. Jennifer goes after John Nike I (the other is in a coma after attacking Hack’s girlfriend, Violet) for many reasons, number one being the killings; number two being the fact that he’s her ex from when she worked in the advertising world.

As the story develops, the major storyline swaps from Plot A (Jennifer vs. John re: the Nike Mercury killings) to Plot C: the battle between the two loyalty programs that everyone belongs to, US Alliance versus Team Advantage. Each loyalty program wants to be the number one, and they’re always tied because they each have the same amount of companies belonging to them. When Nike cuts John Nike 1 loose, he becomes the liaison to US Alliance, at which his megalomania really begins to shine.

Let’s see, what else … Overall, I think that the book tries to do a lot more than it actually accomplishes. I think that the idea that, in the future, business overtakes individualism is both somewhat spot-on and also extremely scary. (On the other hand, I also wonder how a person is named in this universe that has two jobs… is the last name hyphenated? Do you go by one identity during one shift and the second during another? WHAT IF YOUR SECOND JOB IS BATMAN) I think that the book does a fairly okay job acting as a cautionary tale, that if we as both individuals and members of a community are not careful, there could come a day when it won’t be immediately illegal to kill people as part of some global guerilla marketing campaign.

But I also think that the book tries to do too much. I think there are too many characters and too many plotlines, and while they all integrate to be part of the SAME FUCKING CASE (and that is now twice in as many months that I’ve referenced the same line from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which means that I either need to watch it post-haste, or possibly mention the line again so that Harry Lockhart appears in my apartment a la Beetlejuice. A sexier, cursier, non-dead Beetlejuice), I think that having less characters and subplots would make a studier narrative.

Also — and this just came to me, so bear with me — Jennifer Government is a world without Art. I’m only thinking along these lines because I went to see Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen tonight, and I’ve been brewing an essay in my head about how that movie wouldn’t be made today, and how Art has changed in fifty years, and all sorts of other things along that vein that doesn’t actually fit in this particular entry. But again, bear with me on this. In Jennifer Government, we are shown people taking the last names of corporations, and the government, and subverting their own individuality to the needs of the ‘greater good.’ There is no room for Art in that world. What ‘art’ there is would be called ‘vandalism’ in today’s society — rewriting billboards, throwing riots. There are no plays, no music, no movies, no television. No books. No art.

And I was sitting in the theatre tonight, amazed at the panoramic shots of a desert I’ll most likely never see in my lifetime, and in my attempt to stay awake throughout the movie (in my defense, the movie is almost FOUR HOURS LONG), I found my mind wandering about the legacy that will be left by the human race – when the aliens come, how will they discover us? And my mind continued to wander, and eventually I realized that Man has always been creative. Neanderthals are not lauded for their intelligence, but they still had the ego, talent, and drive to document their kills on the walls of their cave, and they are remembered to this day. Art is how I, at least, recall history. Mention George Washington and what does everyone see in their head? His portrait. Art.

So to read a book ostensibly about the future and to find it’s a future without art … let’s all work together to make sure that doesn’t happen, huh?

Grade for Jennifer Government: 2 stars

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