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Jennifer Government

December 13, 2010

Max Barry: Jennifer Government

Max Barry doesn’t have to exaggerate much to produce his dystopia. He only has to assume that powerful people on the right in America are just slightly more successful than they have so far been in implementing their program.

The result is Capitalizm with a ‘z’, where taxes are abolished and government is minimalised, unable to provide social services or investigate crime unless funded by the victims. Corporations take care of everything. Schools are run by McDonalds or Mattell and credit card details must be given before calling an ambulance. Marketing is the key to success – Nike sells more trainers by shooting teenagers who have just bought them. This is the “free” market we will have if the more extreme among the neoliberals get their way.

And it’s fun. Barry is a clever storyteller, and combines fast paced action and black humour with a cinematic style – I could see it on the screen as I was reading. (The film rights were snapped up when the book was published in 2003, but nothing’s happened yet.) I was not too put off by the formula plot and flat characters, because the setting is so cleverly drawn. I would have preferred flesh and blood characters I could empathise with, but they are sufficient for such a story.

The purpose of the book is to be entertaining, and it succeeds. But can such a book serve a more serious purpose? I don’t see it as frightening (as some reviewers have) or as a way to change minds, or a call to culture jamming. I’m already wary of neoliberal ideas, and neoliberals themselves are unlikely to read the book or allow it to affect their beliefs if they did. But it does paint a picture of what the world will be like if certain people get their way, and thus chips away a tiny bit at the power of the minimalist-government agenda and its media supporters.

But don’t expect too much higher purpose. I read it on a lazy day when I was taking a break from writing and heavier reading, and it suited the occasion perfectly. I was entertained.

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