PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
Alice is a cryptanalyst and cryptic crossword setter, hired by PopCo, the third biggest global toy company as an experiment. They want creatives from new fields to help in the ideation of a new product which will wrestle the cash from the one elusive cash rich market they have so far failed to connect with- teenage girls. But how can Alice connect with the teenage market, when her own childhood was marred by the death of her mother and disappearance of her father? Having spent her childhood breaking codes to find buried treasure with her grandfather, can she develop a product which appeals to the teenage girls of today? When coded messages start appearing, and people start behaving strangely, Alice’s eyes are opened to the hidden truths which have been in front of her all along.
PopCo by Scarlett Thomass is a wonderful fusion of cryptoanalytic theory, maths and cultural criticism, but enjoyably so. When you think back over the novel and consider what actually happens, you realise that in terms of actual storytelling, not a lot has- and yet you’ve enjoyed the novel immensely. In this respect, Thomas’ writing reminds me of the novels of Jostein Gaarder (Sophie’s World in particular) that I used to read as a child, where the story is a frame for the philosophical content, and the whole point of the book is what you learn along the way. Her skill as a writer, I feel, lies in the fact that unless you sit and consciously deconstruct the novel afterwards, as a reader you don’t really notice where this is happening.
As someone who is somewhat allergic to Maths, I found it amazing that I was enjoying the Mathematical content of the book to the extent that I am actually considering taking an A-level in Maths as a result. I think you would have to know me to appreciate this. Through the discussions of cryptography and cryptanalysis, you begin to realise that the whole world is run around numbers to the extent that you are lead to think about the concept of God as a 4D being, and the idea that we are driven to create our own universes- thus explaining the popularity of web based phenomena like Second Life et all. I genuinely never realised the extent to which codes and ciphers are used in modern day life, and I find it fascinating. Conveniently, if you read PopCo, you learn a little about coding messages along the way- which I intend to try out on some unsuspecting victims at some point in the future!
All of this is fused with Thomas’ comments on modern life, and what passes for culture; the study legitimised in the novel by being based around the mysterious PopCo toy company for which Alice works. As I am in love with Thomas, and her seemingly endless expertise in everything, I found out that she has a first class honours Bachelor’s Degree in something like cultural studies. And you can tell. I find the presence of these all powerful corporations in life a little bit worrying anyway, but again, when I read the book and learned about their research methods and mirror branding etc… chilling stuff, but I won’t spoil it for you.
I am aware that this post is mostly me gushing about how in love I am with Scarlett Thomas, so I will stop that now and get a little bit more analytical. Because despite my finding the book enjoyable and informative, as a work of fiction it does have some massive, gaping flaws, other than the constant mentions of green tea, which it is really only fair to point out if you read books for the story (and there is nothing wrong with that, novels are meant to be a source of entertainment!)
I’ve mentioned before that part of Thomas’ cleverness lies in her ability to use smoke and mirrors to convince you that you have read a fascinating story, when actually the story is pretty weak. In many ways, I found the characters somewhat lacklustre and 2D (though perhaps appropriately, given the discourse of the book) and the story… didn’t really happen for me. Thomas is so busy educating, and no doubt some would argue preaching to us, that the story is a means to an end.
Thomas tries to mix a little mystery and a love affair into the story, and this had huge potential, but I found myself quite disappointed by the end product. A convincing back story is built up around the main character’s romantic involvement with her boss, though not to the extent that it is credible when she decides that she loves him, and ultimately goes nowhere. This should have been exploited further to create further impact with later revelations in the book, but I kind of thought, so what? Also Thomas has little hobby horse moments when she preaches about women’s sexual liberation and saving the planet to us, and, whereas I agree with these things in principle, they are awkwardly forced into the book and don’t explain her love affair with a second character. It comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t fit the tone of the story, but Thomas tries to cover it up with preaching, which was a little disappointing.
Another thing which began to grate on me, having read The End of Mr. Y, another Thomas novel, was that the main characters in both of these books are worryingly similar. Very little, other than their names, occupations etc. have been changed. It isn’t a huge issue having only read two Thomas books, but I hope to read more of her novels, and I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t shake things up a little bit soon.
The novel’s end is very hurried, and lots of loose ends are left just that way, loose. Though in a way, Thomas acknowledges this, suggesting that Alice has in fact, written the book that we’ve read so far. I don’t think that this was very successful though, and I think it was the sign of a writer who needs to finish the good book that she has written, but has no idea how to bring it all back together with any sense of unity. It was a little amateurish and disappointing.
I can appreciate that this is a very mixed review. If it helps, I am already looking for other Thomas novels to read. I really enjoyed this book, which is why I read, and I can let the flawed storytelling slide on that front. It really is a case of horses for courses. You know what matters to you in a book, and should choose accordingly. I will say one thing though. There is a puff on the cover from some critic or other gushing that this book will change your life. I am usually scathing of such things, but I do have to agree. This book has really changed the way I look at the world, and I sincerely mean that. It may be a bit preachy, but it is wonderfully clever and forces you to think; I don’t think you get many books like that these days.