G Girl

Way back — oh so way back — I thought about writ­ing a book based on a short story. What a mup­pet. Anyway. I only had one char­ac­ter, a sci­ent­ist called David Proctor. I wanted anoth­er char­ac­ter to chase him…a woman who worked for the gov­ern­ment. Browsing a book­shop, I came across a book called Jennifer Government. The cov­er: One eye, green, with a bar­code beneath it. Yes, I thought, tap­ping my fin­ger­tips evilly, a beau­ti­ful agent who is lit­er­ally owned by the gov­ern­ment, like that bird out of Nikita. Well, I put the book down in case read­ing it des­troyed the nas­cent char­ac­ter — plus, I didn’t want to pla­gi­ar­ise or, worse, play the ‘Am I pla­gi­ar­ising?’ game through­out the writ­ing of the book. Now, some years later, I’ve finally got round to buy­ing Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

It’s the future, people. Corporations have finally wres­ted power from the con­tin­ent­al United States gov­ern­ment and, from there, insinu­ated their imper­i­ally sticky fin­gers into the pies of Australia, South America and Russia. There is a MacDonald’s ‘resta­raunt’ on every street, in every city. And, with­in each ‘eat­ing estab­lish­ment’, you’ll find employ­ees whose sur­name reflect their employ­ment: Mary MacDonald’s, John MacDonald’s, und so weit­er. Identity and cor­por­ate America have become one. The gov­ern­ment is a cor­por­a­tion, and one employ­ee hap­pens to be called Jennifer.

Max Barry is not back­ward in com­ing for­ward with instant shenanigans (don’t read that phrase twice; it isn’t worth it; just crash on) and soon we’re embroiled in a crypto-comed­ic caper of cap­it­al­ist pro­por­tions. We’re intro­duced to the sniv­el­ling Hack Nike, who is soon con­trac­ted to carry out the dark orders of up-and-com­ing guer­illa mar­ket­ing men John and John. The Johns intend to release the latest brand of Nike train­ers to so few out­lets that demand will vastly out­strip sup­ply. As a cre­at­ive flour­ish, they will murder sev­er­al cus­tom­ers in order to drum up street cred.

Quite how Mr Barry has avoided leg­al atten­tion from the many com­pan­ies he maligns, I’m not sure. (Though he does have some thoughts on the blog.)

So why is this book so good?

One, it has a freak­ing great cov­er. I’m not jok­ing. Put that book on a 3-for-2 table and it will jump out, slap you a couple of times about the face, then frisk your pock­ets for the RRP. It just looks great at a dis­tance. Crucially — and this is where things often go pair-shaped — it also looks great close up. The icing on the cake is that the single eye, com­bined with the bar code, makes an impact­ful state­ment about the iden­tity of the book. Check out the evol­u­tion of the cov­er on Barry’s site.

Two, this guy is funny. I laughed out loud three or four times in the first few pages. The humour is of the well-observed, stand-up vari­ety. Clever but char­ac­ter-based.

Three, this book has been edited to with­in an inch of its life. I didn’t count a single word in the first third that could be removed from a sen­tence without break­ing it. As a writer, I already give him a lot of kudos for that. It isn’t easy to edit. But this is more than the chummy glow of admir­a­tion. The story is rat­cheted so tight the pages squeak: there is no stalling dia­logue; descrip­tions serve dra­mat­ic pur­pose; adverbs have been exterm­in­ated; every time there is a change of per­spect­ive, the read­er perks up because the thread was left as a cliff­hanger. (Barry describes the edit­ing pro­cess.) Now, plenty of books do this, but few can pull it off without arti­fice. It’s one thing to note that a writer is tick­ing the check­boxes, but to note that and still be car­ried away by the story is quite rare, and I can’t remem­ber the last time my crit­ic­al fac­ulties were so switched off by a book because I was des­per­ate to read on.

It’s not all per­fec­tion. The first third is per­haps the best because it is heav­ily char­ac­ter-driv­en. Later, as the plot gains com­plex­ity through coin­cid­ence, it’s harder to engage with the story. But the end­ing ties up the loose ends nicely. I advise you to buy this book because it is a mas­ter­class in how to put togeth­er a piece of fic­tion; its edit­ing works like the thou­sand folds of a katana; it’s funny; and its polit­ics suit a Guardian-read­ing wishy washy like me. All wishy wash­ies should read this now! (But I respect and would defend your opin­ion should you choose not to.)

Plus, there’s an online game! What’s not to like?

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

6 thoughts on “G Girl”

  1. I couldn’t fin­ish it. Was just too damn silly to me. John Nike? A plot to kill people who buy shoes?

    I love absurdity, but only when the absurd is jux­ta­posed against the ordin­ary. There is noth­ing ordin­ary in Jennifer Government. I felt like I was try­ing to appre­ci­ate absurdity in a world over­stuffed with it.

    I have a sim­il­ar prob­lem with Douglas Adams (blas­phemy, I know).

    What good is absurdity when every nuance of every sen­tence is absurd? There’s such a thing as self-restraint.

    Plus, Barry’s book seemed to avoid provid­ing any altern­at­ive to his excess­ive absurd­ist cap­it­al­ism. What’s his idea of a bet­ter world? I’m inclined to think Marxism, but he nev­er really gets to a point, does he?

    For all the jokes, too many holes and too many things left unsaid. A total farce of a story… but maybe that’s the point?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Eric. I guess I viewed it as a com­edy first of all, and as a satire I think it can oper­ate in a uni­verse wheth­er silly stuff just hap­pens. Of course, I didn’t think that at the time; it just ‘worked’.

    You’re right, there’s noth­ing ordin­ary…

    A prob­lem with Douglas Adams? *splut­ter* 🙂

    True, Barry doesn’t really provide an altern­at­ive. Then again, I don’t think he has to for it to be a good work of fic­tion. Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t provide an altern­at­ive, but makes some good points. I think it was inter­est­ing to take the ideas to an extreme…though it wasn’t neces­sar­ily the ideas that made the book for me. I found it funny, shock­ing, occa­sion­ally pro­found and know­ingly idi­ot­ic. My kind of book!

  3. It’s just my per­son­al nit­pick. I like my absurd­ism stacked against real­ity for con­trast.

    An all-out absurdo-fest tends to water down the effect­ive­ness of absurd humor itself. It’s like laugh­ing hys­ter­ic­ally until you start to devel­op a head­ache and get really tired. At that point it’s not funny any­more.

    I think that type of ‘burn’ hap­pens a little quick­er on things that are ‘pure’ in their absurd­ism, and don’t have any ordinary/realism based coun­ter­weights or off­sets.

    That’s my the­ory on absurd­ism in meas­ured doses, any­way. 🙂

  4. I’m just bein’ a grump on the sub­ject. It wasn’t my cup O’ tea, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoy­ing it.

    1984 as a com­edy doesn’t really work for me. I’m more of a ser­i­ous dysto­pia kind of guy. So be it!

    I’d be curi­ous to read what oth­ers here think of it.

  5. I enjoyed this when it first came out a few years back, but it did feel dis­tinctly light­weight for the sub­ject mat­ter — still quite enjoy­able though. It does take some of the ideas from the clas­sic SF nov­el The Space Merchants though, which is a much more inter­est­ing read.

    JenGov was picked by one of our SF book group to do the oth­er year and pretty much split opin­ions between the love it, hate it camp and again, even among the love it camp there was a feel­ing it could have done with a bit more depth. But then it might not have been as much fun, so swings and round­abouts…

  6. Interesting point, Joe. I think the Space Merchants was men­tioned in the book, wasn’t it?

    As for depth…I see what you mean. For me, I thought the daugh­ter angle added a lot to Jennifer’s char­ac­ter, but it’s true that the back­ground of John Nike wasn’t explored at length. I guess it didn’t seem like a prob­lem to me at the time. And, in some ways, I didn’t think the book was aim­ing to be par­tic­u­larly deep — it was a car­toon­ish future with car­toon­ish char­ac­ters. But maybe I’m miss­ing some­thing!

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