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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Max Barry

eclectic reviews and opinions

Max Barry,

Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government starts off as a vicious anti-corporate satire. It's set in a world where people's surnames are those of their employers and where the police charge money to solve crimes (and contract work out to the National Rifle Association). Barry is daring enough to use the names of real entities in his fictional environment (as he did in his first novel, Syrup). In the first few pages a Nike marketer arranges to have several customers murdered to boost the street cred of a new line of athletic shoes.

But Barry doesn't define for the reader the rules under which his brave new world operates (or even make them consistent). As a result, the novel founders somewhat after its snappy opening. It turns out that bumping off your own customers isn't really business as usual, and this revelation has the effect of undermining the book's satirical impact. (After all, bumping off the customers is already business as usual for the tobacco industry in reality — it's not that much of a stretch.)

Barry also doesn't seem quite sure how best to exploit his hypercapitalist setting. He winds up interleaving four rather tired plot threads. It's action-movie sort of strategy -- throw a lot of balls in the air, and hope that the reader spends too much time tracking them to think about plot holes. (Unsurprisingly, Jennifer Government has reportedly already been optioned; I can hear the voiceover already: "If you you liked Fight Club, you'll fall in love with Jennifer Government.) Barry proffers two rather lackluster boy-meets-girl stories, some high tech corporate sabotage, and a manhunt/chase that's hampered both by trite backstory and a reliance on tall coincidences, like mistaken identity between two similarly-named sharpshooters.

Strong characterization can compensate for a predictable plot, but Barry's people are shallow. The boys who meet his girls, Hack Nike and Buy Mitsui, are especially bland, feckless, and nearly interchangeable. The leading women, especially the titular Jennifer, have a little more spark, but are still thinly developed.

Jennifer Government is only Barry's second novel, but its thematic similarities to Syrup are obvious, and it's plagued by some of the same weaknesses. Jennifer Government isn't terrible. It's fast-paced, with servicable prose and dialogue. It's entertaining and mildly suspenseful. But I found the book profoundly unsatisfying; I think with some significant rework it could have been far stronger. It could have stuck to its satiric guns and eschewed pat resolution. It could have been leaner and meaner -- Barry perhaps has too much compassion for his protagonists, and Jennifer Government adheres a little too closely to Hollywood's rules for what befalls characters. I wish Jennifer Government had gone for the jugular, but unfortunately she was defanged.

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