I think Scarlett Thomas’s novel PopCo is deeply flawed, but I enjoyed it greatly nonetheless. I think it’s perfectly possible for that to be the case; while I occasionally shook my head at the book’s awkwardness, I stayed interested and engaged the whole time and found the ideas it takes up fascinating. Hobgoblin has told me many times how much he liked Thomas’s most recent novel Our Tragic Universe, and I’m looking forward to reading that one too.

Some of the awkwardness of PopCo is the kind of awkwardness that appeals to me: it spends too much time explaining too many things, it’s obsessed with ideas and technical details at the expense of narrative momentum, and it takes its sweet time getting the plot going. It lurches back and forth between background information and mini-lectures on the one hand and present action on the other.

But, fortunately for me, I found the background information and the mini-lectures interesting. They are about a lot of things, but chiefly about math, codes, and code-breaking. The main character is a youngish woman, Alice, who works for the company PopCo, which makes games and toys for children and teenagers. Alice’s job is to make kits for children on spying, detective work, and code-breaking. She has learned all about codes from her cryptanalyst grandfather, and she has a good grasp of math, gained from her mathematician grandmother. Codes aren’t purely cerebral puzzles for Alice, though; her grandfather gave her a necklace when she was young that contains a code her grandparents expect that will she one day crack.

The novel takes place during a company retreat, one of those team-building affairs intended to energize and inspire workers, although surely they more often do the opposite. Alice enjoys her job, but she doesn’t enjoy the intensity of being in such close contact with her colleagues; she has work friends and makes new ones during the course of the novel, but she’s always been a bit of an outsider. This outsider stance comes partly from her uncertainty about the purpose and value of the company; their marketing practices, in particular, seem suspicious to her. She wonders whether they are doing anything that has any value, and whether she is using her knowledge and creativity for a positive purpose. It’s not just her company she’s uncertain about; she wonders about a society that seems to care only for making money at the expense of honesty and integrity. She’s particularly disturbed by PopCo’s practice of making toys that they sell under a fake brand name, not connected with PopCo at all, to appeal to people wanting to be a little different and to buy from small companies, instead of supporting the big corporations all the time. People have no way of knowing the small company they think they are supporting is really just PopCo under another name.

The book takes us through the work retreat; things happen, but they happen slowly, and the narrative frequently jumps back in time to describe Alice’s childhood. It also stops to explain in depth about mathematical concepts, particularly prime numbers, and to describe various types of codes and how to crack them. I found all this interesting, being a bit of a math person myself, but if you’re not, this might be slow going. It’s the kind of book where characters explain things to each other in long stretches of completely unrealistic dialogue; as far as I know, people don’t really talk to each other that way. I have to say I found the ending pretty unrealistic and awkward as well.

But, I’m still fond of the book. Alice is a great character, and I liked the fact that she knows tons of cool stuff, not just about math and codes, but about a whole range of other things. She’s confident in her knowledge in a way that’s appealing. The book’s discussion of consumerism, marketing, and also the pervasiveness of technology, is interesting as well. At 500 pages, the book is too long for the story it has to tell, but still, they were a fun 500 pages.


Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “PopCo

  1. I just finished a book I had some similar feelings about – at a different time it might have struck me as totally silly & sentimental & unrealistic, but happily I read it at just the right moment & greatly enjoyed it. And I totally relate to finding the dialogue/plotting/etc. awkward but at the same time CODES ARE COOL! 🙂


  2. Your second paragraph describing the awkwardness of this novel is something that I think is actually Thomas’s shtick when it comes to novels. I reviewed Our Tragic Universe a few months ago and its whole premise is the idea of the storyless story and fictionless fiction, which as you can imagine makes for a novel that is anything but conventional and not so concerned with a strong narrative thrust. But I too really enjoyed it because I just found it so dang interesting and it’s actually a book that’s sort of rooted itself in my subconscious and I find myself wanting to read it again. I’m also really looking forward to reading her earlier works… Borrowed The End of Mr. Y from a friend, but PopCo sounds really fun too!


  3. I hadn’t heard of Thomas until ‘Our Tragic Universe’ came out in the UK and I’m still on the library waiting list for that. I don’t know if PopCo is available over here, but I’m about to find out, because like Emily I think codes are cool. I’m also very interested in how narratives work so would be intrigued on that front as well.


  4. I’ve seen this book around, but in the UK, it has black-edged pages and I have to say they put me off. Shallow as a teaspoon, me! But I enjoyed your review, Dorothy and am very glad to know more about the novel.


  5. Eva

    >>I think Scarlett Thomas’s novel PopCo is deeply flawed, but I enjoyed it greatly nonetheless. I think it’s perfectly possible for that to be the case

    I completely agree! I find it difficult to blog about books like these, though; it seems like just by talking about the flaws I give the impression that I didn’t like it/don’t recommend it.


  6. Good to know. An ARC of this book has been sitting on our shelves since, well, before it was published. You’ve made it sound even more interesting than I’ve always suspected it is, and maybe I will get to it sooner rather than later.


  7. This book ahs been on and off my TBR list. I think I might have to put it back on. I love code stuff, not that I understand it, but it’s still cool.


  8. Hmm, not sure if this one is for me but I kind of like the whole corporate setting. I’ve worked many years in the corporate world and have gone to too many retreats so I may get a kick out of reading about that. Plus, I’d like to see what happens in the book as far as the toy story line is explored. What they get away with (or not). Interesting.


  9. Emily — codes ARE cool, and this book has so much information about them, and a reading list at the back! It’s wonderful to find the right book at the right moment and to be able to enjoy something at one moment you might not at another.

    Steph — that makes me want to read Our Tragic Universe even more! I’m curious to see how that one compares to PopCo (and also The End of Mr. Y). I like books that are self-reflexive in some way, and it’s so interesting that Thomas is willing to ignore the usual “rules” of fiction.

    Annie — if you like codes, you will like this book! I hope you are able to find a copy. We own Our Tragic Universe, and I’m looking forward to getting to it (someday!).

    Litlove — our copy of Our Tragic Universe has black edges, but I kind of like them! 🙂 I don’t, however, like reading books whose appearance doesn’t appeal, so I fully sympathize!

    Eva — you’re right, and it’s a hard balance to strike. I try to make sure I’m enthusiastic enough about the book’s good points, and hope people will read the book if they find the book’s good points appealing enough.

    Emily B — I thought of you as I read this, and I think you will like it quite a bit. It’s a great novel for a math person!

    Stefanie — I understood codes much better after reading this book, so you probably will too! I’ll never be good at them, but it’s nice to understand a lot more about them.

    Iliana — I think anyone who has gone to a work retreat will be amused by the portrayal here. She describes the silly games you’re supposed to play quite well!


  10. I’ve managed to get hold of a copy of PopCo. If it’s as interesting as you say then I might make it my next book group choice and see what sort of reaction it gets.


  11. I’m not much of a math person (well am not good at it, though I do find it interesting), but I do like the whole spy, code-breaking angle of the story. I wasn’t familiar with this author until I read your post. Now you’ve made me curious about her.


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