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.