Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Milquetoast Malevolence


Australian author Max Barry likes consumer goods as much as the next guy. He just doesn't think it's a good idea to let corporations run the government. He'll tell you why and talk about Jennifer Government, the novel that earned him a Borders Original Voices award, at Barnes & Noble in Austin on February 7. (courtesy photo)

Down Under author satirizes corporate globalization

"The free market delivers rising standards of living; that's almost a non-debate by now. But it doesn't work by magic: It trades off social equality for economic efficiency. That's fine to a point, but when some people are selling their kidneys for food, you've probably gone too far," says 30-year-old Australian Max Barry.

Barry, author of the well-received 2003 novel Jennifer Government (Doubleday), will be appearing in Austin at Barnes & Noble on Tuesday, February 7, as part of his U.S. tour to promote the paperback release of his second novel, which garnered him the Borders Original Voices award. In addition to reading from the book and signing copies, he says he is also looking forward to talking with fans about "Nation States" (, a free online game he developed to accompany the book. "It's kind of rare for an author to interact with actual human beings, so that's exciting," said Barry in an email interview with the Current. "I'm not looking forward to the parts where I get frisked by airport security guards at 6 a.m."

In Jennifer Government, mass consumerism reigns: The U.S. controls the market in all of North America, as well as Central and South America and Australia; the government is privatized; the National Rifle Association and the police are publicly traded security firms; the U.S. Government may investigate crimes only if they can invoice a citizen directly for it; employees adopt the surname of the company for which they work (e.g., "John Nike"), and corporations are literally at war with one another, giving a new meaning to "hostile takeover."

In this "brave new commercial world," with a "pure, golden light of profit spilling from it," consumerism and culture are indivisible. The police even use the very relevant song "Every Breath You Take" in television ads and play it over the intercom at their headquarters.

Jennifer Government

7:30pm Tuesday, February 7
Barnes & Noble
10000 Research Blvd., Austin
Barry divides the action of the novel among London, Melbourne, and Los Angeles. With their skyscrapers, Nike Towns, and McDonald's franchises, these three locales may as well be the same city, which is exactly Barry's point. "I thought it would be great fun to write a story set in an ultra-privatized world," he says in a press release, "but I didn't want it to be futuristic, with flying cars and laser guns and gadgets and all that stuff. Eventually I realized I could take today's world, tweak the social rules, and leave everything else the same - and that's the setting for Jennifer Government. It's not science-fiction so much as social-fiction."

Barry's background enabled him to incorporate nuances of the corporate culture. Before he was a full-time writer, he completed a marketing degree "and was amazed at the stuff they were teaching us. Things like the 'Just Noticeable Difference Theory,' which tells you exactly how much you can shrink the size of a chocolate bar before anyone notices. There are actual bodies of work on this. And it's all so happily deceitful. Then I got a job in marketing for Hewlett-Packard, which introduced me to a very strong corporate culture - that's when I realized why the first four letters of culture are 'cult.'"

Barry delivers a blow to the marketing crowd with his villainous characters. At one point in the novel, John Nike, a top marketing executive, dismisses a book he begins reading in-flight when the book starts to turn into a "sly, anti-free market statement," with an irritating sense of irony: "There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. There was no place in marketing for that, either."

Jennifer Government's satirical attack on modern consumer culture reaches hyperbolic levels. A Nike marketing plan calls for the assassination of low-income teenagers in order to build "street cred" for the new line of Nike Mercurys, which cost $2,500 a pair. The Nike executives decide to take matters into their own hands after observing the lack of loyalty on the part of sneaker consumers:

"'I remember when you could always rely on those little street kids to pop a few people for the latest Nikes,' Vice-President John said. 'Now people get mugged for Reeboks, for Adidas - for generics for Christ's sake.' 'The ghettos have no fashion sense anymore,' the other John said. 'I swear, they'll wear anything.'"


Nike is not the only brand under fire in Jennifer Government. McDonald's, Burger King, Pepsi, General Motors, and Exxon come under Barry's scrutiny of the larger corporate culture as well. Barry is not worried about the backlash from these companies, either. Instead, he contends that they are part of our modern zeitgeist. "There's nothing wrong with corporations making tons of consumer goods," Barry said via email. "The issue is that these things we created to manufacture the goods, corporations, are steadily gaining legal and political power. You really don't want an entity that has the sole aim of increasing its own wealth to have a hand in writing laws for the society."

Similarly, in the author's note to Jennifer Government, Barry defends his use of actual brand names, this time giving the reader a preview of the novel's witty tone: " There are a lot of real company names and trademarks in this book, most in situations you are unlikely to see on the covers of any annual reports. That's because this is a novel, and the things that happen in it aren't true. This may seem obvious enough to you, but some people (whom we shall call 'lawyers') get very uptight when you describe large corporations masterminding murders. So let's be clear: this is a work of fiction. And the use of real company and product names is for literary effect only and definitely without permission."

Just as he irreverently uses actual company names to create a realistic setting for his novel, Barry also unapologetically points a finger at the United States for spreading a homogeneous, milquetoast culture across the globe.

His novel has sold well in the States, despite that fact (or, perhaps, because of it), but it has also sold widely in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and Japan - all countries that have been influenced by American pop culture. "All these countries are dealing with issues of globalization and increasing corporate power," Barry says in his press release, "so the novel's concept is pretty universal. But the idea of cultural capitulation definitely resonates more outside of the U.S. There's a vague unease in countries like Australia that our unique character is being slowly eroded away by the vast amount of American culture we import every year, whether that be film, TV, music, brands, or whatever. We love that stuff - for God's sake, don't shut off our supply of Hollywood movies - but there's something deeply unsettling about seeing a 15-year-old Australian walking down a street in Perth wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap." •

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