PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
I really enjoyed The End of Mr. Y, and was definitely enthused to read more books from Scarlett Thomas. Although there were many elements I enjoyed about PopCo, there were also many that I found deeply irritating. Like The End of Mr. Y, PopCo doesn’t shy away from big ideas and complex concepts, but the actual core narrative and characters are much more suspect.
PopCo follows Alice Butler, an employee of the titular toy company PopCo, who at a company retreat is selected to be part of an elite group of employees to create a new product for teenage girls. Alice begins to question the morality and honesty of what she does, whilst at the same time receiving mysterious notes in code. We also have the parallel story of Alice’s childhood with her mathematician grandparents, and the mystery of the unbroken code hidden in her necklace.
There’s not an overabundance of plot in PopCo, but it does establish a really great atmosphere and what is there is interesting. I probably enjoyed the childhood storyline more than the adult one, which involved a lot more introspection and whining. There’s nothing wrong with writing with a political slant, but in PopCo Scarlett Thomas often gets very ‘soap box-y.’ Whether it’s veganism (ugh), homeopathy (double ugh) or corporate greed (ok, that one’s fair enough), Thomas imparts her views with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. Seriously, during the depictions of homeopathy I was rolling my eyes so hard I thought that I’d do myself serious damage. Writing with a strong social or political message must be reinforced within the plot, and at best it feels organic. Good political writing weaves its message into the narrative; for example, Margaret Atwood’s environmentalist message in the MaddAddam trilogy over, say, John Galt’s rant in Ayn Rand’s contemptible Atlas Shrugged. PopCo reminded me a lot of Iain Bank’s The Business, which cover similar themes, but I felt that The Business did so with considerable more nuance. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of compelling, interesting stuff here, but it’s undermined by Thomas’ brute force approach to conveying her message.
One thing about The End of Mr. Y that I really enjoyed was its scientific focus on quantum mechanics, a topic which I found fascinating. PopCo has a similar focus on mathematics and code breaking, topics which I didn’t find quite as interesting. That’s just me though, and I highly appreciate the well-researched effort that Scarlett Thomas puts into her books. She’s a really great writer, and is truly excellent at conjuring a sense of place. She has a knack for naturalistic dialogue, and making her books, even when they’re about something bizarre, feel ‘real.’
One major issue that I had with PopCo is that it’s protagonist, Alice Butler, is one of the most irritating that I have ever read. She shares many similarities with Ariel Manto from The End of Mr. Y, but with a wearisome anti-hipster attitude which just makes her even more of a hipster. I liked child Alice a lot, but during her adult storyline with PopCo I found her constantly grating. The supporting cast has a few stars though, with my favourite being Esther, the foul mouthed, constantly weed smoking employee with a mysterious job for PopCo.
PopCo is a good book, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as The End of Mr Y. It has some really interesting things to say about marketing towards children, but the brute force approach that Scarlett Thomas takes to her message undermines the whole book. Don’t get me wrong, PopCo hasn’t put me off Scarlett Thomas, I definitely want to read more, but I hope that the nextone I get to is more The End of Mr. Y and less PopCo.