Aussie writer casts a satirical eye on corporate society
Everybody wants to rule the world, and Max Barry can prove it.
Last fall, Barry invented a free Internet game called www.NationStates.net Ñ think SimCity with countries Ñ to promote his new satire 'Jennifer Government.'
'I e-mailed 20 friends, and I thought maybe 1,000 people would be playing by the time the book came out Jan. 21,' says the Australian novelist, speaking by phone from Los Angeles while on the book tour.
Barry vastly underestimated the game's appeal. More than 140,000 people are playing the game worldwide, according to the Web site, and the players are inventing new nations with such unlikely names as the People's Republic of Goobertronica, the Free Republic of Hair, the Holy Empire of Evil Garden Gnomica and the Free Republic of Rudies.
They've chosen slogans, flags and national beasts and run their countries in styles ranging from inoffensive centrist democracies to bloodstained dictatorships and corporate bordellos.
That last category is particularly intriguing to former Hewlett-Packard employee Barry, because corporate greed is the driving force behind the book 'Jennifer Government.' Barry poses daily online questions to game contestants, and their responses trigger changes in their countries that show up the next day. Every decision has unforeseen pitfalls.
'The idea of both the game and the book is to explore the humor in everybody's wacky political ideas,' Barry says. 'Both came out of the idea that a free market paradise where the government had little power and there were no taxes would be a great place to live. It struck me as hilarious, and there was the foundation of the book. It may not be the world we live in, but you can see it from here.'
Barry's book Ñ which has been compared to Joseph Heller's 'Catch 22' Ñ took 18 months to write and six months to edit, which included radical cuts and the loss of several characters.
'It got much slimmer and stayed true to the four or five key people in it,' he says with satisfaction.
There's a 100-word disclaimer on the flyleaf emphasizing that it's a work of fiction, even though the corporations he names are real.
In the world of 'Jennifer Government,' taxes are illegal, employees take the last names of the companies they work for, the police and the National Rifle Association are publicly traded security firms, and the United States government only investigates crimes if it can bill for its services. Most of the world is run as American territories.
Schools are sponsored by Pepsi and McDonald's, and competing loyalty programs Team Advantage and U.S. Alliance (think Visa and MasterCard) are battling to land big corporations such as Boeing and IBM.
Jennifer Government is an FBI-like agent, a single mother with the bar code for Malibu Barbie tattooed under one eye. She's put on the case when Nike's marketing department shoots 14 teens trying to buy new $2,500 Mercury shoes Ñ thus raising the street cred of the product.
Jennifer has a personal as well as professional stake in the crime: She wants to get even with John Nike, the executive who masterminded the shoe campaign and betrayed her five years earlier.
'An employee of Nike is the villain, not the entire corporation. That's an important legal distinction,' Barry says with a laugh. 'A lot of people said, 'You'll never get this published; they'll sue you out of existence.' But my publisher looked at it and said this is clearly a parody. My first book, 'Syrup,' was about Coca-Cola, and I never heard a word from them.'
A Nike spokesman in Beaverton had no comment on 'Jennifer Government.'
Barry also is encouraged by a Jan. 28 Supreme Court ruling involving Barbie doll:
'The group Aqua did a song called 'Barbie Girl.' A case brought by Mattel under the trademark dilution act was thrown out of court. It actually sounded pretty scary, but the court ruled that parodies are exempt. And that's good news for us.'
By the way, the bar code under Jennifer's eye on the book cover really is the bar code for the novel.
The book has been optioned by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's production company, Section 8 Films, which astonished the 29-year-old Barry.
'It's very strange,' he says. 'You sit by yourself and write for a long time, then one day you open up an e-mail which says Section 8 Films is interested. That's tremendous news!'