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Book Review: the ultimate extension of free-market, small-government

By Peter Chen - posted Tuesday, 29 July 2003

Political satire for my generation - born into the world of corporate excess and marketing hyperbole - emerging Australian author Max Barry (Syrup) shows us a vision of the world dominated by the social perspective of Friedrich Hayek and Tony Abbot: the State has withered away, corporations have near complete freedom of action, workers take on their corporation's last name, and the Police and the National Rifle Association are rival security firms contractible for work by the general public. In a world where the contract reigns supreme (if you have the resources to enforce it), Barry shows the lives of a number of characters living among the constant economic pressure of red tooth and claw.

Situated largely in Melbourne, the story begins with Hack Nike (low-level merchandising officer for the giant sportswear maker) taking a contract to push the latest $2,500 sneakers. For less-than-bright Hack, the promise of a good job in marketing overcomes prudent suspicion, and in signing the contract unread, commits himself to kill the first ten purchasers of the Nike Mercury to build "street cred" for the shoe before the company dump millions of units on the marketplace. Repelled by his commitment but terrified by the punitive non-completion clauses, hapless Hack runs to the Police, who willingly subcontract the job off him for a competitive rate amortised over monthly payments.

As the Police further subcontract to the NRA, the scheme attracts the attention of Jennifer Government, one of a small number of agents employed by what remains of the state. As the killings occur, the Government is able to convince one of the victims' parents to fund an investigation, and with "budget" Jennifer begins ruthlessly tracking down the source of the conspiracy. In the course of the investigation, a range of characters are introduced: from burnt-out Buy Mitsui fighting to meet his sales quota, through the last Melbourne socialists, to Billy NRA, failed gunman just looking for an easy life.


In laying out the story, some of Barry's flourishes are particularly nice. Wealthy commuters cut through traffic by taking "premium roads" at two dollars a mile, companies like McDonalds and Pepsi run schools (parents who receive endless catalogues from teachers will smile at Jennifer Government complaining about the merchandising she is forced to take from her daughters Mattel-run school), companies sue former employees who resign if their replacement is incompetent, the unemployed have no last name, and the Government charges its prisoners room and board.

While Jennifer Government serves as the protagonist, much of the exploration of this unpleasant environment is unpacked through the eyes of the naive characters: Hack, Billy, Buy, and Hack's wannabe ruthless girlfriend who ends up getting much more than simply a last name. The story moves between the micro-events of the characters and the wider clash between massive rival corporate loyalty programs with the government squeezed between the two.

Overall, while Jennifer Government could be simply an anti-corporate novel, Barry demonstrates sympathy for the people who work in massive corporations. While many of the events of the novel stem from sociopathic corporate excess, these are tempered by a morality tale about the boundaries of corporate freedom. Thus, while the book jacket proclaims "It's Catch-22 meets the Matrix", the reality is quite different and the outcome more subtle. In execution, elements of the plot and dialogue are sometimes forced, but as a statement about the way our world may be heading, it's a timely and highly readable book.

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About the Author

Dr Peter John Chen is a lecturer in politics and public policy at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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