by Max Barry
Review by Abby Goldsmith August 2006
Interesting premise. Jennifer Government is a half-serious, half-humorous tale of corporate warfare and innocence versus greed. It takes place in a future where American consumerism has replaced old world values, and taxes have been abolished. People are defined by which corporations fund their schools, land, local malls, and income. The government of the "USA countries" has shrunk to a vigilante group funded by whomever will pay them.
I think this book could make an excellent movie. It lends itself to adaptation. But the very qualities that make it great screenplay material also diminish its value as a novel. The characters are cliche in every way possible. The dialogue gets cheesy. My main struggle was finding sympathy for most of the characters. The good guys are all 100% innocent-and-naive, the bad guys are all 100% greedy-unethical-mass-murders. There is no gray area with these characters, and for me, that made them bland. Why should I care about a shmoe who lets himself get sucked into a contract that any child could see is evil? The author tells me that he's a nice guy, but he's too stupid for me to care about. He's like the people who sue McDonald's for making them fat. The title character of this book, Jennifer Government, is supposed to be a sympathetic single mom fighting for justice . . . but she leaves her daughter in the care of a stranger, and does other things that make her seem criminally irresponsible. I couldn't believe that she was a good person. I didn't like her. Sadly, the most interesting character was the super-villain. He was so cool, I found myself rooting for him ... until the end, when he dwindled into bad guy cliche land.
Still, this book is loaded with ideas. Imagine a world where someone might identify himself as "John Nike" because he works for Nike Corporation. Imagine a world where mega-conglomerates hire armies and attack each other using missiles, assassins, and nasty advertising campaigns that have a lot in common with terrorism. Imagine a world where consumer loyalty has gotten so out of hand that gangs of McDonald's supporters will murder gangs of Burger King loyalists.
If the characters had seemed like real people, I might have considered some of it plausible. But there's a step between reality and fantasy, and without that necessary step, the reader falls right through the fantastic backdrop and back into reality.