Max Barry – Company / Jennifer Government

Company is I think Barry’s debut novel and at times this shows through – there are pacing problems, issues with indistinguishable character voices and a weak ending. However in terms of the fundamental concept which slowly reveals itself during the course of the story Barry has done a fine job and I couldn’t get enough of his writing style.

Having worked in a large company in an open plan office for much of my working life it was difficult for me not to draw similarities initially with the story of Zephyr Holdings in the same way that Dilbert cartoons sometimes seem to hit the mark exactly with office politics or situations I have faced.

The story is told from the point of view of a new recruit to the company in the form of Stephen Jones. To all intents and purposes Zephyr appears to be one among many large corporations in the city and the biggest problem the team Jones joins initially appear to have is a mystery of who ate a doughnut they shouldn’t have eaten.

Things very quickly begin to unravel as Jones continues his working week. Doughnut-gate reaches ridiculous proportions, it appears that the training team only sells training to internal departments, nobody knows what the company actually sells to its customers, no-one has ever seen the CEO, the company policies appear to be alternately facist or random depending on which way the wind blows and the HR department is some mysterious Oz-like floor of the office building.

Jones sets out to uncover the truth and initially this is very intriguing and entertaining. However once Barry has painted himself into a conceptual corner he doesn’t seem to entirely know how to get out. The end is rather rather a let down given the novelty of the core idea of the story.

While Company is pretty much contemporary in its setting, Jennifer Government is set in the near future, where global corporations rule the world and the government is a largely ineffectual annoyance to them, and the police and National Rifle Association are guns for hire.

Jennifer is so named because she works for the government – employees take their last names from their employers. The other main character, Hack Nike, is a poorly paid merchandising officer near the bottom of the pecking order within Nike. He’s promoted by two sociopathic executive marketing managers called John who want his help promoting their new line of trainers in a daring campaign.

Hack signs on the dotted line without reading the small print of the contract to find that he has agreed to murder a bunch of teenagers at a shopping mall. Hack goes to the police but instead of starting an investigation into his allegations they take the contract on and then in turn subcontract to the NRA. Such is the state of the society Barry has constructed that no-one seems to be bothered that they are being paid in the name of capitalism for multiple murder.

Jennifer soon gets wind of the nefarious campaign organised by John Nike for whom she holds a serious grudge, but rather than being about any one character this story is told from multiple viewpoints. The characters weave in and out of each others’ paths and Barry does a grand job of interweaving the narratives. The farce escalates until two packs of corporations wage war on each other – their allegiances based on the loyalty scheme they have signed up for – with the government caught in the middle.

There’s some rather cute anachronisms carried through into this future world which remind me of the whirling tapes and CRTs in the 1973 Westworld film but all in all this is a much more accomplished novel than Company imo. However don’t let me put you off either of the books – they are both very novel novels.

Photo credit: Unsplash (Bethany Legg)*

*I’m going to be using some royalty free imagery from now on when I can’t find a photo of my own. I will try and credit these when I use them.

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