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?

Published by

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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