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PopCoReview - PopCo
A Novel
by Scarlett Thomas
Harvest Books, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 1st 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 31)

PopCo is a 500-page novel about the excesses of multinational corporations, the exploitation of children through commercialism, the mistreatment of animals in factory farming, and the ways in which creativity becomes twisted by the need to sell products.† Yet it is also amazingly engaging, fun, and spontaneous, and is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read for months.† Scarlett Thomas manages this by making codes and mysteries integral to the plot, and by making her lead character Alice quirky and vibrant.† She works for PopCo, which is the third largest toy manufacturer in the world.† Her job is to create games or toys that use codes or detective abilities.† She feels ambivalent about what she does, but also not confident that she will keep her job.† Previously, her income came from making crosswords, and she now has become used to a good income.† She has a best friend at PopCo, Dan, with whom she shares private jokes. †She is comfortable with much of her lifestyle and she might possibly be promoted. †So she is potentially at a turning point in her life.†

The novel starts out with Alice taking an overnight train to go to the PopCo "Thought Camp" held at a large country house in Devon, UK.† People will gather there to try to come up with ideas for new toys, but the company's policy in bringing them together in this different venue is to make them think differently, be more creative, and get out of their usual ruts.† So they play games together -- sports and more intellectual games like Go -- and start to get to know each other better.† They are led by the company founder Mac and his second-in-command Georges.† Alice has had a flirtation with Georges and she wonders whether it might lead to something more here on this retreat.† She also meets a co-worker called Ben with whom she has a chemical reaction, and she isn't sure where that encounter is heading.† As the story proceeds, we learn more about Alice's childhood and how she became introduced into puzzle solving by her grandfather.†† She had an unusual upbringing, and this accounts for her slightly different perspective on life.†

As the retreat goes on, and the workers are encouraged to come up with ideas for products that will appeal to teen girls, Alice thinks about her own experience at school, as she was teased and ostracized, and how she eventually came to be comfortable without wanting the approval of her peers.† Spicing up the plot, Alice gets some secret messages, and we learn how some codes are made, as she tries to decode them.† This brings in surprisingly technical bits of mathematics, but Thomas manages to do this without making it seem like she is quoting a textbook.† You do not need to be a puzzle-solver yourself to get drawn into the mystery of who is sending Alice these notes, and it is still possible to be impressed by the cleverness of the codes even if you do not try to solve them yourself.†

The narrative shifts between past and present, gradually building up our understanding of Alice, as she comes to an important decision about what to do with her life.† We also come to learn about marketing strategies and the psychology and sociology of teen consumerism, and the ways in which Alice is both good at doing her job and yet at the same time repelled by what she is doing.† Thomas brings the reader round to what she explains is basically her own view, that we should become revolutionaries and fight the insidious ways in which our lives are being taken over by consumerism.† Furthermore, she makes the arguments that we should become informed about the exploitation of people in the third world and the inhumane ways that animals are treated in modern farming.† Normally, such a political book would be didactic and probably tiresome, yet Thomas keeps the pace fast and her characters interesting.† Impressive.

 

 

Link: Scarlett Thomas website

 

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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