Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 450 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I read dozens of novels every year but I can quite honestly say I’ve never read anything quite so weird nor as wonderful as Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo.
Thomas, who was named by The Independent in 2001 as one of the 20 Best Young Writers, has an idiosyncratic style that is fiercely intelligent but imminently readable. This is a book that brims with ideas, is stuffed full of one-liners, and even includes a crossword puzzle and a list of prime numbers at the rear. It’s hugely ambitious, wanders off on what seems like a million tangents and editorializes on everything from the state of Western medicine to the “cruelty” of the dairy industry, but somehow it all comes together to form a coherent and immensely entertaining narrative.
The story revolves around Alice Butler, a 29-year-old “creative” at PopCo, a global toy company (“the third largest in the world”), during an “away” trip in the English countryside. With all the employees pitted against each other to come up with a new product for the teenage girl market, Alice buzzes with excitement and creativity. But then she begins receiving secret coded messages, which indicate that there might be more going on in PopCo than meets the eye.
Alongside this main narrative thread is a back story about Alice’s childhood in which she was raised by her grandparents, two mathematical geniuses, whom she very much adored. This gives us a glimpse of the girl who grew up to be a fiercely independent woman with a penchant for numbers and puzzles. From this we learn not only about her troubled schooldays in which she was too geeky to fit in, but about the highly secretive work involving code-breaking and treasure-hunting, to which her grandfather devoted his life.
Throw in a healthy bit of romance (and sex), a whole lot of stuff about marketing and mathematics, and you’ll get some brief idea of what PopCo is about.
While I can’t say that I found the ending particularly satisfying (it seemed slightly too far-fetched for my liking), I did very much enjoy reading this book and learning about code-breaking and all kinds of mathematical rules, which surprised me given I am not a numbers person at all. But what I loved most about this book was its cynicism, particularly in relation to marketing and the dubious practices some advertisers carry out.
This is what Alice begins to realise part-way through the book:
It is all dishonest. We are twenty-first century con artists. Marketing, after all, is what you do to sell people things they don’t need. If people needed, say, a T-shirt with a logo on it, no one would have to market the idea to them. Marketing, advertising… What started off being, ‘Hey, we make this! Do you want it?’ turned into ‘If you buy this, you might get laid more,’ and then mutated into, ‘If you don’t buy this, you’ll be uncool, no one will like you, everyone will laugh at you and you may as well kill yourself now. I’m telling you this because I am your friend and you have to trust me.’ Marketing is what gives value to things that do not have any actual intrinsic value. We put eyes on a bit of plastic, but it is marketing that actually brings the piece of plastic to life. It is marketing that means we can sell a 10p bit of cloth for £12.99.
There’s no doubt that PopCo has a conscience and treads a subversive line, but it is also quirky, unusual and damn good fun and is perfect if you’re looking for something a little different to cleanse the reading palette. Highly recommended.