Sandwich shop captialism

Max Barry’s Jennifer Government holds up exceptionally two decades after its release

Sandwich shop captialism
Image: Andrew Liptak 

My dad's a big fan of the sandwich chain Subway, and over the weekend, he forwarded me a link to a story on NBC: "Subway offering a lifetime of free subs if you change your name ... to Subway". Heading over to the company's website, I found some more details: it's a contest that's running this week, in which if a contestant "commit[s] to legally chang[ing] their name." The company says that it'll also pay for the legal fees for the winner to carry this out.

This isn't the first time that Subway's done something like this – the article mentions a prior contest where someone got a tattoo of the company logo. Even the name change thing has been around for a little while. When Subway was sponsoring the TV series Community, one of the subplots included some invasive product placement: it took over the Greendale Community College's lunch room, and one of the workers there assumed a corporate identity: Subway.

It's a creepy idea born out of our hyper-capitalistic world, and the contest reminded me of an excellent satirical novel with a similar premise: Jennifer Government, by Max Barry.

After reading the article, I pulled out Barry's book to give it a quick read, and I realized that it came out in 2003, a full two decades this October. The premise is a fun one: in the nearish future, the capitalist influence of the United States has extended around the world. The government has been privatized, and people take the name of the company they work for. The book opens with an outlandish crime: to raise the profile and street cred of a new shoe, a pair of Nike marketing executives contract a desperate man named Hack to carry out a string of murders of their own customers. The idea is that the shoes – the Nike Mercury – are so rare that people are willing to shoot one another for them, and thus, customers will want feel some of that risk when they buy a pair of their own.

The rest of the story goes from there: the book's lead character, Jennifer Government is a government agent looking to take down the Nike guys, and it's quite the ride. I quickly blew through the first dozen or so chapters, and it's just as snappy and sharp as I remember it.

I was talking with some about the book earlier today, and noted that for a book that's now 20, it holds up remarkably well, and I'm honestly not sure that it's something that you'd see published today. There's a wonderful author's note that starts "there are a lot of real company names and trademarks in this book, most in situations that you are unlikely to see on the covers of any annual reports..."

That we see characters who're enrolled in company schools run by Walmart or McDonalds, or that we see the Nike contracting out killings is both hilarious and something that rings closer to truth than I think we care to admit, especially in an environment where we see the trust in public service eroding or where public services subcontracted out to private companies. There are all sorts of memorable details in just the bits that I re-read: a guy trying to save a teenager shot in a mall who's asked to give his credit card number before 911 will dispatch an ambulance, or where a guy's laid off from a tank factory because senior management "made some tough decisions." In a period where we've seen the tech and news industries decimated by extreme cost cutting and where medical care is out of reach of a ton of people, it hits pretty close to home.

Speculative fiction really doesn't need to be predictive to be good. Authors can get lucky with imagining a piece of technology that'll eventually become widespread, but I think the books that are held up as being unusually predictive or prescient are the ones written by folks who're just good at observing the state of the world. Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood each noted that to imagine the futures in their books, they just needed to look at history – or the newspaper headlines. Barry, coming out of the Dot-Com bubble of the 1990s clearly saw the economic world for what it was: a boom time where American consumerism was able to run rampant around the world, from which he extrapolated a bit. It seemed outlandish to my 18-year-old self when I read it, but reading it now, it doesn't quite seem as far-fetched.