Dan Keating's Reviews > Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government by Max Barry
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Dec 03, 2011

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I think, in retrospect, that reading "Jennifer Government" directly after reading "Brave New World" wasn't the most ingenuous idea possible. Jennifer Government, while depicting a horrifying dystopia like Brave New World, does so for a modern audience. It lacks Brave New World's timelessness and is about as subtle as getting punched in the face, but once you step back from it you realize that's part of it's intelligence.

From the beginning, Jennifer Government seemed like kind of an immature book. The writing was passable, in the way that contemporary third person novels that mostly eschew style and only commit to slight variations in voice in the narration often are. The ideas seemed a little adolescent - from changing the word capitalism to "capitalizm" to changing peoples' name structures so that each person's last name is the name of the company they work for, Jennifer Government appears thinly veiled. Add in the oft-times comedic stupidity of several of the main characters (in particular, Billy's complete lack of common sense is reinforced in pretty much every passage he appears in) and you have something that feels like it's trying to poke fun more than seriously analyze or satirize.

But what is the primary issue with a world obsessed with profit and corporate consumerism? Infantilization. In order to make people more susceptible the a world without substance, they are made to be more like children. Shades of Brave New World again, only here - rather than a society designed to be unintelligent by the intelligent - Max Barry gives us a world in which even the upper echelons of society have fallen prey to their own anti-intellectualism. The result? Mass stupidity and a prevalence of egregious personality disorders. In particular, main character John's narcissistic personality is way, way overblown - appropriately, given that he lives in a society where that disorder is not only spawned, but encouraged to grow. Indeed, the more involved in himself John is, the more successful he becomes.

The characterization is a bit difficult to pin down. Many of the main characters experience only peripheral changes - Billy in particular comes full circle, managing to get out of the series of events of which he never wanted to be a part at the end, having learned and changed very little. John, too, is a bit of a wash; he's played up as being evil almost beyond comparison, and is left in a situation that is perhaps meant to be satisfying to the reader but ultimately isn't. And Hayley - spolier alert! - dies extremely soon in the novel, which leads me to believe that she was only narrated so that the reader would develop a connection and so feel bad along with Buy when he was unable to save her life - a case of women in refrigerators syndrome for the literary crowd.

Really, though, it is Buy who is the most interesting character in the novel and whose silly incompetency - attempting to kill himself only to realize he couldn't get the gun to fire, and then calling a Government agent to ask her how to get it to fire - is probably the most forgivable; especially as he later admits it was more of a plea for help than an honest call to find out how to work the gun. His journey - from a mild stockbroker to a suicidal incapable of figuring out how he'd cared about his shallow existence to a loving adoptive father - is the most emotional one undertaken in the novel, and while it isn't terribly deep, his story feels the most complete of all the characters in the novel.

And then there's Jennifer herself. Really the problem with her is that there isn't enough of her in the novel. We get snippets of her backstory and find out - spoiler alert again! - that she'd been a successful marketing executive until she'd gotten pregnant and decided she wanted to keep the baby, which the father, John, didn't want to keep. However, we don't actually see any of that - nor do we really see her as the wunderkid marketing executive she had been, nor do we see any of her transformation from said wunderkid marketing executive to the tough-as-nails, throw-the-book-out-the-window, gun wielding Government agent she is throughout the novel. Too much of Jennifer's story is left out of the novel for her to be a truly effective character. She has her moments, but ultimately, this does not feel like her complete story.

Characters aside, the overall theme of Jennifer Government speaks to the idea of de-regulation in a corporate-controlled world - one in which we already live, by the way, but which hasn't grown to the proportions Barry envisions. Ultimately - spoiler alert, one more time! - the various corporations decide that a completely unregulated market doesn't suit them, because without someone to keep people from running around hurting each other all the time there wouldn't be business, just anarchy. Even small government enthusiasts will have to admit a point here - oftentimes, the idea behind reducing or removing the government is that in doing so, society will self-regulate moral judgments, but a society which has abandoned morality for greed and empty consumerism wouldn't self-regulate at all.

In the end, Barry doesn't explore the social repercussions of the novel's events at all. It definitely feels like a more character driven parable and that's reinforced by the lack of exploration of the aftermath - I was left wondering how society and the Government rebound from everything, but there's nothing really to speak to it.

If you're looking for a fun read - Jennifer Government is pretty fun. If you're looking for something universal, look elsewhere - Jennifer Government is pretty firm in it's politics and, despite my statements above, will probably offend the more laissez-faire crowd at some point. And lastly, if you're looking for something deep - you're probably not going to find it here, but if you dig a little you can appreciate what Barry was doing.

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