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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Jennifer Government

Max Barry

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To purchase Jennifer Government

Title: Jennifer Government
Author: Max Barry
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 321 pages
Availability: Jennifer Government - US
Jennifer Government - UK
Jennifer Government - Canada
Jennifer Government - India
Jennifer Gouvernement - France
Logoland - Deutschland
  • Even before publication, the film rights to Jennifer Government were apparently optioned by Section 8 films (with which Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney are associated)

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Our Assessment:

C- : decent idea, poorly executed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 5/7/2003 J.C.Grimwood
The Independent . 10/7/2003 Kim Newman
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 16/2/2003 Rob Walker
The Observer . 27/7/2003 Stephanie Merritt
Time A 10/2/2003 Lev Grossman
USA Today A+ 29/1/2003 Nicholas Thomas

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a fast read, peppered with neat gags about corporations run out of control and their tendency to crush regular people. It's structured like a combination of action movie and farce, as a largeish cast runs around the world, and Melbourne, at cross-purposes, never explaining enough to avoid disasters. But the brand-named characters seem off the shelf." - Kim Newman, The Independent

  • "Barry is surely more interested in entertaining than in preaching or inciting. And he is entertaining. For the first hundred pages or so, he unleashes enough wit and surprise to make his story a total blast. (...) The novel is written in a style less concerned with an enduring shelf life than with quickly satisfying the customer." - Rob Walker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Barry's narrative voice shifts subtly to embrace the idiom of each character and he is caustically funny in the small details, though patience is required of the reader initially; scenes follow in quick, cinematic progression, introducing a number of characters whose place in the story and relation to one another only gradually come into focus after the first 100 or so pages." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer

  • "Barry is a smart writer with a Cassandra's gift for dark-edged prognostication. The story should be depressing, but the author manages to make it extremely funny." - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "(A) compelling story about consumerism, greed and the people who try to survive in between. (...) Barry goes against the literary grain by mocking society and its intentions -- and he has you on the edge of your seat from the very beginning. (...) Jennifer Government is delightful. It will simultaneously stimulate your interest and beg you to focus on the many satirical aspects of consumerism in America." - Nicholas Thomas, USA Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jennifer Government has a fun premise. It is set in some near but indefinable future (or it could also be seen as an alternate reality version of the present). The United States has effectively been privatized and money -- capitalizm (yes, with a "z") -- rules all. Taxes have been abolished, shrivelling government to a shell of its former self and greatly reducing its role: "They just stop people stealing or hurting each other and everything else is taken care of by the private sector, which everyone knows is more efficient", as a schoolgirl explains.
       The United States has also expanded, including essentially buying up Australia. Other countries like France still insist on backward ways (strong government and all), but there's none of that in the American territories.
       People also are identified by taking their employer's names for their last names. The eponymous Jennifer Government works for the government, Hack Nike works for Nike, etc.
       The rule of capitalizm makes for a somewhat unusual world. Jennifer's daughter goes to a school run by Mattel (making for a Barbie-paradise), the NRA (America's favourite gung-ho gun-group) is an even more significant player in this society, and crimes are only investigated if the victims pay, as Jennifer explains:

The Government's budget only extends to preventing crime, not punishing it. For a retributive investigation, we can only proceed if we can obtain funding.
       Marketing is important in this ultra-capitalist world, and the book begins with a doozy of a publicity campaign to try to make Nike's new line of athletic footwear a must-have item. The shoes cost "eighty-five cents to manufacture" and will retail for 2,500 dollars. Why will people pay that ? Because the sneakers will literally be to die for.
       So begins the shoot-'em-up tale -- and one of the least redeeming features of this irredeemable novel is the pointless and over-the-top carnage that carries through from beginning to end. Barry means to make fun, of course, but he rarely manages to be funny, especially with the violence. Most of the time, reading Jennifer Government is like watching someone play a hopelessly outdated, crudely animated video-game where the sole purpose is senseless killing -- but with ads popping up all over !
       In short, dialogue-heavy chapters (eighty-six of them), Barry follows several story-lines across several continents. There's Jennifer, who has a score to settle. There are the two ruthless John Nikes who do everything to excess, wreak havoc, enjoy great success -- and get their just comeuppances in the end. There's Hack Nike, who gets in over his head. There's Buy Mitsui, who does a good deed that haunts him until he gets to do another. There's bumbling bumpkin Billy who keeps getting mistaken for someone else. There's computer-savvy strongwoman Violet, who's got a killer computer programme that will, of course, be employed for nefarious ends.
       And there's also Jennifer's darling daughter. Hmmm, who could her father be ? Hmm, could something bad maybe happen to her before it's all over ? Hmmmm.
       The plotting in Jennifer Government is either painfully transparent or hopelessly over the top. It's like something conceived of by a gang of fidgety fourteen year-old boys who don't have the patience to work out any one idea and so switch back and forth and all over, just looking for bigger explosions and more unlikely events. It's written in a style that resembles the writing of fourteen year-olds too.
       One wants to allow Barry a little leeway -- this is satire, after all (at least we're assuming it is -- that's his only excuse, after all) -- but there's almost no realism in this fantasy world. His dystopia is superficially amusing but not thought-through -- the world of media, which would surely have a significant role in any such society, is almost entirely ignored, for example. He doesn't think through the consequences of many of his premises either -- for example what a world where the state really only tried to prevent crime rather than punishing it would look like.
       Even granting his weakly worked out premises, the book moves along unbelievably. The characters are barely even two dimensional, with even the hint of a third dimension only appearing a handful of times. Almost none of the characters have any sort of history or background (and being so insubstantial they really are shadow-like in every sense), and it is hard to care much about any of them. They conveniently (but unbelievably) appear wherever they need to appear. The shoot-outs and scenes of violence are almost all simply ridiculous. Even details -- what few there are -- are often hard to believe, like the corporate informant who e-mails incriminating messages from her office computer terminal.
       Barry does have some decent ideas, but he doesn't have the patience to flesh them out. He crowds the novel with too many stories, and then doesn't do enough with them to satisfy the reader. There are a few scenes and exchanges that amuse, and there are a few nice observations, such as:
Violet's sister had a lot of books. They filled three bookcases, with bizarre titles like An Equal Society and Socialist Thought. Hack wondered what they were about.
       But there is far too little of this sort of stuff.
       The book moves along at a nice pace, largely because there is relatively little to it (lots of dialogue, few words on the page, short chapters). But one thing that is quite well done are the chapter cuts, moving the story back and forth between the many far-flung characters and converging (and occasionally diverging) plotlines. Not moving quite chronologically, with moments of suspense at the end of a chapter only cleared up when the next chapter has caught up, it is an annoying but fairly effective device.
       One understands why the film rights for Jennifer Government were quickly optioned -- it really sounds like a fun idea, summed up in a few sentences (capitalizm with a "z", consumerism the be-all and end-all, government marginalized, gargantuan corporate takeover battles). But after coming up with this fairly good idea Barry doesn't seem to have worked too hard to do much with it in turning it into a would-be novel. The book is very disappointing -- needlessly violent, cartoonish, not particularly funny. Like Barry's earlier book, Syrup (see our review), it is barely a book at all, but Syrup at least had a bit more charm to it. Here even the marketing satire isn't very amusing.

       Note: the review copy we obtained (not directly from the publisher) includes a faux-letter from the Editor in Chief at American publisher Doubleday (William "Bill" J. Thomas) to the "Dear Reader". It reads, in its entirety:
If for some inexplicable reason (congenital lack of a sense of humor, warm affection for gigantic multinational corporations, twisted prejudice against Australian authors) you don't have great fun reading Jennifer Government, please direct all angry letters to Luke Janklow at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, who persuaded me to acquire the book.
       The letter is remarkable -- for one, for being funnier than the novel that follows it. But what is noteworthy is the attempt to sidestep all responsibility, a publisher standing up and acknowledging what we have suspected all along: editors don't make the decisions any more about what gets published, agents do. Publisher Thomas doesn't feel in any way responsible for his role in inflicting this book on the reading public (rather than offering one that might have some redeeming features, or actually be a good and entertaining read) -- because, as he says, it practically wasn't his decision at all.
       The agent "persuades", the editor obliges: this is what American publishing has come to. And the tragic thing is that given the potential movie tie-in and the brisk foreign rights sales Doubleday will actually probably make some money off this deal too and thus be able to justify this selling-out to the agent-powers that be.
       (It seems clear that Thomas knows he is putting out a pretty shoddy product in this book -- he may suggest here that only an "inexplicable reason" would prevent readers from having "great fun" with this book, but by framing his pitch in this way and deflecting all criticism -- and actually naming a third party to blame (god forbid readers would blame the author, eh ?) -- well, it sounds to us like he is trying to insulate himself from the complaints that he knows are inevitable.)

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Jennifer Government: Reviews: Max(x) Barry: Other books by Max/Maxx Barry under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Max Barry was born 18 March 1973. He lives in Australia and used to work in marketing. Sometimes he calls himself "Maxx Barry".

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