Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Scarlett Thomas, Setting

‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas


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.

13 thoughts on “‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas”

  1. I had not heard of this book ~ thanks for the heads up. I am all for “quirky” and unusual and this sounds like it’s right up my alley – and that of my readers.
    Heidi Richards Mooney, Publisher
    WE Magazine for Women


  2. I think I missed the point with The End of Mr Y and might need to read it again like I need to try We Need To Talk About Kevin once more. I think at the time I found it too quirky but loved the book shop it started in. This sounds quite different so will have to give it a try I think.


  3. I saw this in the window in Waterstone’s earlier. To add the quirkiness, the edges of the leaves are in the blue of the over. Nice touch. The story sounds right up my street after reading your review, but I have more books to read than I can manage at the mo, so I have to put this one on hold for now.
    To date, the quirkiest novel I have read also carried a marketing theme. It was Roger Morris’s “Taking Comfort” from MNW. It concentrated on office life and someone’s personal meltdown, but each chapter also focused on a familiar brand seen in offices. As for the depiction of office life, I concluded that this novel would be a good one for school-leavers to read to find out what’s in store and the politics etc.
    As for PopCo on marketing, I perceive a cynical strand there, which can only be based on the developments over the last few years. One of my degree courses was in marketing and it’s the one in which I achieved the highest marks. I’ll always go back and cite Theodore Levitt’s Marketing Myopia. For long term profit you have to bring a product or service to market that fulfils customer need and you have to recognise what market you are in and the competition. Railroads? No; it’s transport. Oil? No; it’s fuel.
    Because of what you quote above, I think we can see this early century’s developments: long term profits? No; short-term profits based on faddism, yes. IT developments will no doubt continue here, but when it comes to T-shirts and similar, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings and she sang yesterday. I suspect a recession may knock that one on the head and we’ll all start thinking medium to long term, rather than short.
    Oh boy, now I’ve written all this and trawled through my memory, I really want to see what this book has to say. Before today’s Waterstone’s purchase I had £5.85 on my card, so I suspect I can cover half the book price when I return. An all important consideration when looking for work…


  4. That should read “…blue of the cover…” at the top.
    I had my glasses on and the lenses were cleaned too. Apols for any other typos. 😉


  5. I’ve seen The End of Mr Y about the place but haven’t investigated it or its author as yet – I will be rectifying that. I’m thinking PopCo may be an interesting choice for my book club as one of the members works in advertising 😉


  6. Late to this, but I just finished The End of Mr. Y, which I loved. It sounds like PopCo is similar in its juxtaposition of big intellectual ideas with modern problems and issues. And a strong female protagonist to boot. Sounds great!


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