Book Review: Scarlett Thomas, PopCo

I finished the first book out of the 20 or so I brought home with me. It took me a few weeks, to finish it, but not because I was bored with it, mostly because of end-of-semester stress. Ladies and gentlemen, PopCoby Scarlett Thomas.

Cover of "PopCo"

I found it on the shelf at Memorial Library; it had a fascinating front cover with an eye and lips, and an equally more interesting back cover. After a few minutes of debating whether to get it and face the reality that it’d be returned unread, or not getting it and then when I went back to look for it, find it gone, so I just got it and put it under everything I had to read for the semester…well, not really, more like…alongside it, getting in a chapter or two here and there. This is the kind of book that’s hard to put down, but once you pick it back up again, it’s easy to get back into.

To summarize: Alice Butler is a twenty-something crossword puzzle constructor turned toy creator for a gargantuan toy company called PopCo. She is invited to the annual company retreat in a place called Battersea. There, in this weird company compound where there may or may not be children testing toys, she is assigned to a team of other eclectic and mysterious PopCo employees to make the “perfect product for the teenage-girl market.” Much like her predecessor in Wonderland, Alice goes on a strange journey full of encrypted messages left at her door, wacky workshops where she has to play a paddle ball game, solve riddles, and sail a boat. It is also a journey into her childhood, as she searches for the solution for the mysterious code inside a locket given to her by her grandfather, reliving it alongside searching for the answers to the questions PopCo brings up – both of which yield unexpected results. It’s like a hybrid of Alice in Wonderland and 1984.

It’s got all the ingredients for a good story, but I think it’s about 75% there. I loved the character of Alice; she seemed like a great combination of nerdy and spunky. Socially awkward, yet sexually desirable. Some of her friends, particularly Esther, got on my nerves for the sheer lack of information Thomas provides us with. I feel like it has a strong start and keeps going for awhile but loses steam toward the end. The last few chapters were fascinating, but still somewhat of a let-down. We never find out if Alice left PopCo or not; if the treasure was found, and by whom; if anyone from PopCo came up with the desired product; how Chloe’s sabotage worked out; if Alice and Ben ended up together; and what the hell happened to Alice’s father. I don’t know if the author planned on writing a sequel, but since it’s been a decade since she wrote it, it’s unlikely that there will be a PopCo 2.

I would definitely recommend this book; it’s full of fun and tidbits about cryptography and an inside look at major toy corporations and branding schemes. I loved the crazy book-page code, and the complicated one with the massive grid.

One thing I noticed that may or may not have been intentional; the names of the PopCo employee characters all line up in alphabetical order and alternated by gender and importance of their role in the story. Take a look:

Alice (protagonist)

Ben (her love interest)

Chloe (Ben’s “fawn-haired” friend who isn’t who she seems)

Dan (Alice’s friend, a programmer)

Esther (a mysterious and duplicitous internet marketer)

Frank (not a major character; described as a “large black man with tattoos”)

Grace (female Asian employee who beats Hiro at Go)

Hiro (male Asian employee and reigning Go champion who has a thing for Grace)

There are no I or J-named people, but there is Kieran (who is male but should be a girl, by the rule of being an odd letter of the alphabet) and two Icelandic employees, Mitzi and Niila (who fit, as Mitzi is female and Niila is male). There is also a Violet, however, nobody with names between O-U.

This one was tough to let go, knowing that I had so many unanswered questions. All the same, it intrigued me so much that I got two more of her books from the library, brought them home with me to read, and will probably end up moving their way to the top of my reading list.

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