October 2005

Colleen Mondor


PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

I started reading Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo strictly on the basis of the jacket description: “PopCo tells the story of Alice Butler -- a subversively smart girl in our commercial-soaked world who grows from recluse orphan to burgeoning vigilante buttressed by mystery, codes, math and the sense her grandparents gave her that she could change the world.” Somebody at Harcourt deserves a big raise for that one.

I did not sail through math classes in school, in fact I pretty much dreaded them, but I have always been a big fan of codes, from standard crossword puzzles to the word jumble in the Sunday comics. I love that Navajo Codetalkers changed the course of WWII and bought both Enigma and U-571 on DVD strictly because of the plots based on war time code writing and busting. I had pens with invisible ink when I was a kid and spent many long hours forming secret clubs with indecipherable languages during elementary school. Codes, quite frankly, rock, and a book about a girl who grew up learning them and writing her own was not to be passed up. I thought PopCo would be interesting, and hoped it would be unique. I had no idea it would be both brilliant and rebellious. I should have had a clue though when the jacket described the business PopCo as a “slightly sinister toy company.” Thomas has opinions about what we buy and how we sell and this book was the perfect vehicle for her to explore all those ideas. I think I’m still in awe of how her mind works and alternately shocked and depressed by the truths about the buying public that she has uncovered. But all of that is merely icing on the cake of this book; the really cool parts are all about Alice and the mysterious codes.

Alice was raised by her grandparents both of whom were cryptanalysts. Her grandmother worked on the Enigma project during WWII and her grandfather is a world renowned talent in the field. They both endeavored to save the world in their youth and continued to work in mathematics and coding for the rest of their lives. While all of this is interesting enough (and the development of older characters as vital and important members of the plot is always welcome), it is the ultimate code, the code that leads to buried treasure, that haunts Alice. Her grandfather would not reveal the treasure’s location but left a clue in the necklace Alice has worn since she was a child. Whether or not the events in the book will lead Alice back to this old puzzle is a possibility that is dangled before the reader as the plot careens through the events of a bizarre “Thought Camp” led by PopCo executives. There are two stories going on in this book, one involving Alice’s past and the other her future. What she chooses to do with her life, and how she plans to fulfill her family destiny, is left to the final pages to reveal. But the ride to get to that conclusion is outstanding and unforgettable. I only put this book down to eat and sleep. It captivated me, pure and simple.

PopCo's management is determined to develop the ultimate product for teenage girls. Alice is part of a group of designers and thinkers who are brought together to create the material object that girls will have to own, even if it means nothing and proves itself to be more of a marketing lie than a worthy product. Thomas points the finger at the Hello Kitty brand of products here and left me thinking just what the heck good is all that stuff? Why does anyone want it, let alone own it? The reasons why we buy and the manipulations behind the scenes to make children, and particularly young adults, need things, many, many things, are laid bare in the context of Alice’s “Thought Camp” experience.

Honestly, there were a lot of parts to this book that disturbed me because they rang so true and made me feel a bit like a fool. Alice doesn’t know if she is doing a good thing or not by working at PopCo and honestly I don’t know what the hell I’m doing buying anything these days that some marketing whiz seems to think I should own. We all need to be responsible for our purchasing power and Thomas wants us to own that responsibility. As Alice begins to see the world through clearer and wiser eyes, the reader is also able to reconsider just what goes on at Madison Avenue and how it affects all of us. It’s a trip to see Alice viewing her life and the lives of those around her in a whole new way. The fact that I was able to catch some of her new found wisdom and transfer it to my own life is just a bonus, and one that clearly must be credited to Thomas’s excellent writing.

PopCo a history lesson, a modern fable, an adventure story, even a romance. And it involves buried treasure! More than anything though, it is a wonderfully, gorgeously, original piece of work. The world has never seen anyone like Alice Butler, and Scarlett Thomas has gone a long way towards crafting a one-of-a-kind piece of literature. I’m eager to see what else Thomas has in store for the world.

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
ISBN 015603137X
503 pages