Book Review 07: Free Markets Gone Nuts

In Jennifer Government, Max Barry crafts a dystopian future where capitalism has run amuck. A person’s last name is the same as their employer or school. The federal government is little more than a contract enforcement body. Corporations and people have full reign to do pretty much anything they can pay for. The government will only investigate crime when the victim can afford to fund the prosecution.

And (supposedly) the language in a contract beats all.

The story opens when low level marketing employee Hack Nike finds himself promoted after a chance meeting. He signs his new contract without reading it, and only then learns what his new job will entail. To increase sales of a line of sneakers, he needs to kill 10 kids who buy them.

People will think the sneakers are so popular, that kids are killing each other to get their hands on a pair. Nike would then flood the market with the now coolest product on the street at a huge price, and make a different sort of killing.

Hack, though, is not entirely on board with this plan.

He shook his head angrily. What was he thinking? He wasn’t going to shoot anyone. Not even for a better apartment.

Page 10

But he signed a contract. His freelance and last-name-less girlfriend Violet encourages him to go to the police. He does, and they explain his options. If Hack Nike goes forward with the killing, the police will find him quickly, and if the families of the victims choose to fund it, he will be prosecuted and sent to prison.

Or, he can outsource the job to the Police and they will take care of it. For a fee of course. Hack signs another contract without reading it.

Things start happening quickly from there. Barry introduces us to Jennifer Government. Jennifer is a Government agent with a mysterious past and an even stranger tattoo. She is the classic cop who plays by her own rules, and who drags her more relaxed but supportive partner into the mess. She is more concerned about doing what’s right than doing what she’s supposed to do.

Barry does a nice job of setting up a complex plot with lots of twists and turns. The story quickly takes off and involves the highest level executives in the world, government structure, and lowly laid-off take builder Bill formerly-Betchell.

Billy Betchel built tanks. Big ones. They had caterpillar treads and cannons on the front and swiveling machine guns; they were …impressive, was what they were. When anyone asked what Billy did for a living, he said, ‘You know the Bechtel military yards, outside Abilene? I work there,’ and watched their eyebrows jump. It got so Billy started wishing his job was as cool as it sounded.

Page 20

Characterization is the weakest element in the story, however. Barry’s characters, while interesting, aren’t fleshed out individuals. They are just a few pages away from being clichés. We’ve seen these characters before:
  • The down on his luck employee duped by his boss
  • The rogue cop
  • The partner who really wants to play by the book
  • The pompous corporate executive
  • The fired-up corporate protester
  • The precious child in danger
  • The independent person who doesn’t realize the deck is stacked against them until it’s too late.

Barry takes these characters and puts them in new situations that explore the extremes of libertarianism and unbridled capitalism. He attacks the extremes of free markets without saying anything bad about them. Instead he puts the story in play to see what can happen when anything goes.

The pacing of the story is a bit uneven. It starts off at a decent pace. Then it plods a little. Then it sprints. Then it plods some more. Then it sprints again.

While there may be pacing issues and some shallow character development, Jennifer Government is definitely worth reading. The story is complex and interesting. And the action sequences are tight.

One of Barry’s strengths is the action sequences. Many authors have trouble with these. They put a lot of characters in a scene and when the bullets start flying, it all becomes mud.

That doesn’t happen in Jennifer Government. Barry manages the locations, activities, and motivations of his characters well even when things get crazy. This is especially difficult since he tells the stories from inside the characters' heads and tries to hold on to their voices. But Barry deftly manages the locations and actions of multiple characters when they are quickly colliding.

Some of my favorite phrases in the book are those that give us some insight into the characters.

John Nike is an executive with Nike on the rise. He represents the ultimate free marketer and for Barry, represents the voice of the era.

The easier your job, the more you got paid. John had suspected this for many years, but here was proof: pulling down five hundred bucks an hour to sit in the afternoon sun on top of an L.A. office tower. He was wearing a brown suit and shades, reclining on a deck chair while a light breeze blew in from the bay. John thought he might have found the perfect job.

‘Hey,” he said to the foreman. ‘I’ve got an inventory sheet. None of this stuff had better go missing.’

The foreman looked at him. He was not so relaxed: he was getting paid much less than John and doing much harder work. ‘Nothings’ going to go missing.’

Page 146

‘By this action, the Government had proved that so long as it exists, none of us are truly free. Government and freedom are mutually exclusive. So if we value freedom, there’s only one conclusion. It’s time to get rid of this leftover relic we call Government.’

Page 212

‘Yes, some people died. But let’s not pretend these are the first people to die in the interests of commerce. Let’s not pretend there’s a company in this room that hasn’t had to put profit above human life at some point. We make cars we know some people will die in. We make medicine that carries a chance of fatal reaction. We make guns. I mean, you want to expel someone for murder, let’s start with the Philip Morris Liaison. We have all, at some point, put a price tag on a human life and decided we can afford it. No one in this room has the right to sit here and pretend my actions come out of the blue.’

Page 232

Violet, on the other hand, is the entrepreneur trying to be John Nike, but from the bottom of the economic ladder.

She took her fingers out of her mouth and looked at them. The nails were broken and ragged. There was blood and torn skin under them. She leaned over and spat, but the taste wouldn’t get out of her mouth. She didn’t know whey that courier girl had put up such a fight. Violet had only wanted her stupid jacket. People always had to make things difficult for Violet. They always had to screw her over.

Page 273

Jennifer is the cynic and remains highly skeptical of the world around her.

He smiled, but it was a strange, disconnected smile; it worried Jennifer a little. Buy Matsui was not running on all cylinders.

Page 88

Companies claimed to be highly responsive, Jennifer thought, but you only had to chase a screaming man through their offices to realize it wasn’t true.

Page 298

Hack Nike is really the only character who has a major personal epiphany. There are others who almost do, but Barry chooses not to explore those moments with other characters.

Still he felt upbeat on the cab trip back to Claire’s. He felt like he’d discovered something important. People like John Nike hadn’t been pushing him around for no reason, Hack realized: he had let them do it. He’d expected them to do it. Well, all that was going to change. He was going to take control.

Page 165

If you find yourself reading the book and getting a little bored, just keep reading. It will pick up again. And the story is worth it. If you want an entertaining story, told with a sense of humor, about a dystopian future, pick up a copy of Jennifer Government. Don’t expect a deep character sketch, and you will likely enjoy it.

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