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?