The Wonderful Wizard of…Wales

I usually read two books at a time, and this semester’s long slog was no different. I started this one back when I could still sit on Memorial Union Terrace in a t-shirt and jeans, and I finished it shortly before I left Madison. Unlike River Cross My Heart, this one actually kept me wanting more. I’m talking about another book from the one and only Scarlett ThomasGoing Out.

My copy was actually a different cover, but I think that this one’s much more interesting and relevant to this early 21st century twenty-something adventure/journey novel.

The characters – which there are way too many of, in true Scarlett Thomas fashion – are by and large an interesting bunch of flawed specimens. At first, we meet best friends Luke and Julie, who live in . Luke’s problems are evident; Julie’s not so much. Luke has some sort of condition that prevents him from going outside. Therefore, he has spent his entire life inside his house, learning about life from the TV and the computer. Julie is a waitress at a local cafe, where she is perfectly content to serve salads and solve complicated math theorems in her head. When Wei, a healer with whom Luke’s been communicating, ends up in Wales, Julie and her friends hatch a plan to sneak Luke out of the house and across England so he can see the healer. The crew of six is assembled rather haphazardly, expanding to include David, a co-worker of Julie’s who has cancer; Leanne, a mutual childhood friend and her cousin, Chantel, who’s just won the lottery; and Charlotte, an ex-girlfriend of a now-deceased neighbor who has gotten close with Julie.

The story drags for the first hundred pages or so, introducing us to all the characters and their families and everyone else, but once all the niceties are out of the way, Julie hatches her plan to cure Luke once and for all, with Leanne creating a special “spacesuit” for Luke; Chantel renting a van and being the money behind the operation; and David and Charlotte…joining in for the ride and helping navigate, but not doing a very good job of it. Not their fault, though; the more we learn about Julie, the more we learn about her little psychoses: fear of large highways, fear of travel, fear of ingesting poison through packaged foods. It’s the former two that make the journey a challenge; they must drive on smaller roads (Julie is the only one of them who knows how to drive), most of which keep getting flooded out due to the apparent monsoon that’s overtaken Britain. When they finally get to Wales – small spoiler: not everyone makes it, but no one dies, though – they meet the mysterious Wei, and what ends up happening is not quite what anyone expected.



“What the hell are we doing here? I mean…”

“What, why are we standing on the edge of Epping Forest with a Scooby Doo van, a Lottery winner, a guy with cancer and someone dressed in a space-suit – that we made – having just waved a tearful goodbye to a domineering retail-assistant who’s gone into the words to ‘fulfil her destiny’ and learn how to channel her humungous [sic] witch powers?”

“Yeah,” says Julie.”

– Scarlett Thomas, Going Out, p. 242

I would say that this is probably up there with PopCo as my favorite Scarlett Thomas novel. Even in the slower beginning, it is clear that something amazing is about to occur. There’s a sense of urgency that seems to come with the rain, and it’s only through quick and rash decisions by the characters that anything happens. The second part of the book is really where the fun begins; Julie and her crew are really a set of young, modern-day adventurers in the purest sense, driving around England in what one of them refers to as “the van from Scooby Doo.” There is something special in the fact that they aren’t really that special; other than Chantel, who just won the lottery (which could happen in real life, improbable as it may be), nobody has any sort of magic or super-strength to get them where they need to go. I mean, if you don’t count a lot of weed and cigarettes. It’s just the six of them and one old van against the rain. Sometimes the group members take gambles that pay off, and sometimes Julie almost kills everyone. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I realized what a Wizard of Oz quality it maintains, and I guess I was right, since the final epigraph is a long quote from L. Frank Baum’s novel.

The world needs more Julies, more Lukes, more Charlottes, more Leannes in its current literature; people who have shit to deal with and no witch or werewolf or vampire powers to help them. Because sometimes life sucks. Life sucks a lot in Scarlett Thomas’s novels, which is, I think, why they work, and why I like them so much.

“Anyway, going back to our discussion, then: whatever happens to you, there are two possible outcomes, apart from the infinite one where you turn yourself into a die, throw yourself a billion times, and come up with the number six every time.” He laughs. “You must realise that, in your predicament, when you have too much fear, even the infinite outcomes boil down to two basic ones. Essentially, you’ll either survive, or you won’t. Even the Schrodinger experiment demonstrates that. There really is no such thing as being fifty percent alive. You accept that?”

Julie has to accept elegant maths. “Yes.”

– Scarlett Thomas, Going Out, p. 347.

But then you get moments like this, which seem magical in their own simplicity.


What Almost Kills You Makes You Longer

Today’s book review is the second in a series of two. I was really, really lazy today and just decided to start this post now, shortly before midnight so I could count it as being written/partially written today (when have I done that before? oh, just about all the time :-/ including in Baltimore when I was typing on Central Time) but I started typing at 4 minutes before midnight Central, so it counts. YES IT DOES. Okay that’s enough.

One good book deserves another, so I thought I’d delve into Scarlett Thomas‘s first book, Dead Clever, written in 1998. After finishing it, I found out that it’s part of a trilogy around the same character, Lily Pascale.

Dead Clever starts off with Lily Pascale leaving her apartment and boyfriend in London for a respite at her mother’s home in Devon. Having no job despite her education, Lily gets a job teaching literature at the local university in the wake of the grisly murder of Stephanie Duncan, who was found naked and headless. At first, Lily tries to establish a sense of normalcy in her life, but when she discovers Jason lying in the hall, dying and taking his information about Stephanie’s death with him, she puts on her detective cap and tries to figure out what happened to the students and why. At the same time, she can’t figure out why the others in the literature department are also acting strange, with her superior Valentine barely around and her colleague Fenn mysteriously disappearing. Along the way, she encounters a childhood friend whom she almost inadvertently kills; a creepy psychedelic cult which seems to include basically everyone she knows in town, aside from her family; and lots and lots of drugs.

Despite being a terribly long 300 pages, the book didn’t take terribly long to read. It wasn’t terrible, but it bore the marks of a newer writer; it doesn’t contain nearly as much depth and detail as PopCo, which was written in 2004. There was so much going on. The raw materials were there, but I had a hard time staying with some of the details, such as the layout of the university campus and my mental pictures of Lily, her family, and most of the other characters in the story. The only ones who I could pin down were Fenn (a Colin Firth type), Professor Valentine, and the Raven sisters.

Also, the title? Has nothing to do with anything in the book. At all. Not once is that phrase used. The only thing it made me think of was lyrics “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson, “you think you know me but you’re dead wrong.” Several people die in the book, but it’s a mystery, so that’s a given, and some people are cleverer than others, but still…not a great title.

Like PopCo, I felt that there were a lot of open-ended questions and sort of bizarre circumstances that in the other book made it seem messy, but here made it seem too tidy. Lily did her fair share of legitimate sleuthing, figuring out Jason’s final words and what really happened at the Blue Dolphin on her own, but what really got me was the character of Philip, and the whole cult thing. When Lily arrives at the gathering at Salten, she sees basically everyone from the university there, taking drugs and being weird, including – shocker of shockers – the creepy Professor Valentine as some sort of creepy cult leader. Even her brother Nat knew about this group, yet nobody mentioned it to her at all before she actually showed up at the thing? There, posing as a journalist named Nancy, she meets this guy Philip who wants to tell her the truth about the whole cult, and in the next chapter, gives her basically all the information she needs to know, no questions asked; he has no clue who she is other than that she’s doesn’t fit in at Salten, which somehow makes her worthy of his complete trust and the reveal of all of his secrets of illegal drug experimentation? Color me unimpressed. In addition, the character of Nadia Raven (though I won’t tell you anything more about her) appears way too late in the story to give the reader any hope of discovering what exactly was happening in the murder flashback scenes.

Nevertheless, I want to read more of Thomas’s books; her no-holds-barred Brit Lit style really has me hooked for some inexplicable reason. Possibly because I can respect an amateur sleuth heroine who is into really esoteric topics, has considerable intellect but is plagued with social awkwardness and obvious missed cues, and no matter how awful things get or how much danger she’s in, always has time for coffee. Change the gender and you’ve got me.


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.