Three For A Paranoid Nation: After, Feed, and Jennifer Government

In the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, there’s plenty of well thought-out doomsday stuff for eschatologists and Orwellians to enjoy, but little of it is directed toward young adults, despite most of us having to struggle through books like 1984 as part of the high school reading requirements. However, I came across the following three books and they, with varying success, seem to fit that genre of ‘this is how we’ll all end up someday.’ I know there are more, but these three are recent discoveries.

AFTER, by Francine Prose
Prose is a National Book Award Finalist and her satire has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and so on and so forth. This is her first book for young adults. Her writing style is accurate for a YA book; the characters seem realistic, but somewhat shallowly drawn. I don’t “see” them, which, to me is a minus, but since this book is less character driven that most, it’s not necessarily as big a problem as it could be.

The premise of this book is that, after the shootings at Columbine and at another innocuously named Pleasant Valley, teens at Central High and all across America lose their constitutional rights, and begin disappearing. Teen violence is used as an excuse to wage war against teens. Schools send out massive emails about new school rules, etc., to parents, and expect the parents to read them, nightly, and share the contents with their children. Part Patriot Act, part Stalinist Russia, the school systems methodically weed out unsavory “outsider” profiled children who wear red, bring cell phones to school, and disbelieve the school district’s version of American history. The high school becomes essentially an Orwellian re-education camp, and who knows what happens at Operation Turnaround, the place where ‘outsiders’ are sent?

The book is tightly written, and has the Fahrenheit 451 (or Fahrenheit 911) feel to it that makes it a fast-paced read, but there are some pin-holes in the plot that make me think this is just another book written by an adult to scare kids into thinking about their civil liberties in a post-September 11 world. Not that that’s a bad thing, by any means, but it just disturbs me how some adults use ‘worst-case scenario’ to prove a point. When a book is so heavily plot driven instead of character driven, the plot has to be airtight, and this one isn’t, at times fairly bizarre and sci-fi-ish instead of realistic, which it strives to be. It’s a bit heavy-handed, and has fewer moments of humor than it should, so it comes across as slightly ‘teachy,’ which can be a real problem in a YA novel. All in all, it’s a fairly good book, but I’d give it a B- for lack of subtlety.

“We went to the moon, and it totally sucked.” What a hook! That’s such a fun first line. It’s from FEED, by M.T. Anderson, which is one of those really frighteningly brilliant books where you’re not sure if you like it at all, but it’s just so — good. By now, it’s one of the more talked about books, so I’ll keep my comments short. Basically, Anderson has created a world where there’s a different language, and ‘everyone’ who is anyone has the feed — the 24/7 personal ad service which is basically a computer chip in your head, telling you everything you ever need to know. No one reads, or writes, because they can’t — and don’t have any interest in doing so. The feed gives you everything you need to know or think anyway.

There are some classically funny things in this book about consumerism and brand distortion that are just on the bare edge of scary, in light of the brainwashing that ever takes place via the web, TV, radio and every other outlet. (Even the word School is trademarked, which cracked me up.) As technology advances, there’s this feeling of “have to have it” that ramps up higher and higher, and teens as well as the adults in the protagonist, Titus’ world, are in an ever tightening spiral of government control that very few of them can see. Who tells you what you want, what you need? Who tells you what is cool, and what is no longer an option for the upwardly mobile? To how much of this do you listen?

JENNIFER GOVERNMENT by Max Barry became known to most people by way of a game — which was the snazzy advertising gimmick Barry thought up to go with this novel. Likely because of this gaming connection, this novel is listed in MY library as a young adult book, but I’m not sure about the thought that went into that choice, as it’s not just the under-18 set who play. Anyway. This novel is funny, punchy satire, but it’s also violent on a mindless and large scale, with splatters of gore that become so commonplace that the reader stops recoiling and simply reads on. This book would certainly engage and interest older teens, but the hypercorporate-speak, and the lack of engaging dialogue early in the novel will bore slower readers early on.

Barry’s world is divided into megacorporations. Employees take the last names of the companies for which they work, and only the French are the holdouts from the massive free-market ‘capitalizm’ which has taken over the world. Even the Police and the NRA are publicly-traded security firms, and the Government can only investigate a crime if they can find someone to bill.
Hack Nike is a low-level cog in the Merchandising wheel for his company, who runs into the company brass from Marketing. He is pathetically grateful to both John Nikes for offering him a job, until he realizes what it is… building street cred for a new $2500 a pair Nike’s line by killing teen agers.

Buy Mitsui, a stockbroker who is golden and on-fire in his employment life, but who is haunted by the sterility of his world, is lonely and desperate internally. In an effort to make a difference by changing someone else’s life, he gives a random teen $2500 to make her Nike’s shoe dream come true… and then crumbles himself as he sees the results.

Enter Jennifer Government, a stereotypically street-tough U.S. agent who bends the rules, has something against ‘bad guys’ and lives in a very black-and-white world of me-against-them. Like the typically hardboiled detective type, she has a soft side, and a tattoo, and her job is to rid the world of John Nike. Legally, if possible. If not…

From there, it gets dicier, with characters like Billy NRA, Theo Pepsi, BILL NRA, and more. It’s twisted, it’s amusing, and it’s been optioned for a film by Stephen Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Section 8 Films, so that should give you the gist of the depth of the action. There are no deft and brilliant flashes of insight from this book, and the writing isn’t at all deep, but it’s an entertaining satire. Paranoia-as-fiction is a very ‘now’ literary theme, and happily, the absurdities of the corporate world are now grist for more mills than Dilbert’s. In my mind, this is not necessarily a topic for your typical YA novel, but it works well enough for that other post-teen group of 18-25 that publishers are trying so hard to define.

Thoughts on any of the above? Do tell.

About the author

tanita s. davis is a writer and avid reader who prefers books to most things in the world, including people. That's ...pretty much it, she's very boring and she can't even tell jokes. She is, however, the author of eight books, including Serena Says, Partly Cloudy, and the Coretta Scott King honored Mare's War. Look for the new MG, Go Figure, Henri Weldon in 1/2023 from Katherine Tegen Books.

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