PopCo – Scarlett Thomas

Last year, I greatly enjoyed reading The End of Mr Y, so when I saw another Scarlett Thomas book being promoted, I knew I’d have to investigate. It turns out that PopCo was first published in 2004, when it presumably didn’t get much attention. So, riding on the success of Mr Y, it’s been reissued in a similar style (blue instead of red, but otherwise clearly flagged as being something similar) and given a fair dose of publicity. Now sometimes when that happens, it’s a bit of a cheat. There’s often a good reason why an earlier book didn’t take off, such as it being not terribly good. But I decided to give it a chance, and this ended up being a Very Good Thing.

Alice Butler works as a “creative” for huge toy company PopCo, where she devises activity packs and the like including codes and ciphers. Along with numerous colleagues, she goes to a company gathering at a moderately remote location. Once there, she learns that she’s part of a group assigned a new task – to devise a product to appeal to teenage girls. Lots of fun follows, with typically bonkers training sessions, team building nonsense and all the other corporate guff. But then someone sends Alice an encypted message….

From there, it all gets much more interesting, as the story flicks backwards and forwards from the present to Alice’s childhood, where she was brought up by her mathematician parents[1], which leads to a number of mysteries. There’s the pendant her grandfather gave her – what does the numerical inscription on it mean? How did her grandfather decypt an old document that’s supposedly the key to buried pirate treasure? And in the present, Alice learns that she’s not alone in questioning what her employers are up to, and finds herself joining up with a group that’s trying to change the world with a simple ethos:

Do No Harm

Stop Others Doing Harm

Do What You Can

And to round it all off, there’s a postscript that nearly explains the pendant, a crossword, a recipe and an acknowledgements page that mentions one of my all-time favourite books, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter[2], and the whole package is quite lovely.

[1] Grandmother worked at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, grandfather works on decoding…..
[2] If you haven’t read it, and you have an even vaguely enquiring mind, put it on your reading list.