Scarlett Thomas: PopCo

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I initially started reading Scarlett Thomas because I needed a book for my 12-hour flight from Cape Town to London, and I wanted something that was easy to read yet (somewhat) not entirely 'trashy novel' too. I bought a silver, gold and black copy of Our Tragic Universe, and, in keeping with the tradition, on my flight from London to Cape Town, I bought a red and orange copy of The End of Mr Y. My whole 'Scarlett Thomas' fad died down a bit until I was looking for a good book for the journey (the third time in two years, although this time it was from London to Cape Town) and I picked up a copy of the very blue PopCo

I particularly love that the page edges are dyed blue; it adds to the glistening black embossed text and the sparkling silver code on the cover pages. On the back, the Independent on Sunday reports: "This book might just change your life". My expectations were set high.

The protagonist, Alice, is an anti-conformist, anti-establishment 28-year old code-breaker who learnt everything she knows about codes and recreational mathematics from her grandparents when she was little. Her mother passed away and her father abandoned her in search of treasure - yes, treasure - and Alice is surrounded by mystery, puzzles, codes, secrets, toys and tea. 

She's charming in her own way and of course we all identify with her in bits - I particularly like when she admits "Although I am normal in almost every other way, I don't really like it when strangers touch me. It makes me want to cry." (2009:7). Alice carries a survival pack (that's great) and she always has emergency tea and chocolate in her bag. She works for a major toy company developing spy gadgets, gizmos and kits for children.

There are bits of the novel that are charming and quirky, and some bits that are sad and a bit depressing. There are annoying bits about converting to veganism (not that I don't support the movement, I do: I was just caught off guard by the suddenness of the narrative transition), and a particularly annoying bit about how working in a corporate environment is okay as long as you are ready to overthrow them at any given moment (you just have to wait for 'them', an anti-corporation group, to contact you and tell you what to do for sufficient sabotage strategies). 

She moralises with a big stick in the last few chapters which I find rather at odds with the character's behaviour in the first part of the book, in a very teenage-girl sort of way. There are bits about maths and bits about mathematic models as exemplified in computer programming, and there are bits about second-life RPGs which is fascinating and bizarre at the same. 

This book was written seven years ago and, working in the marketing industry, I find it awkwardly bizarre to pick up on the cyclical behaviour of the main corporation's trends and behaviours; mirror branding, subtle sponsored blogging, focus groups... All corporations do this today. In that respect, the book challenges you to re-think some of the things you take for granted; in other ways, like I mentioned previously, you're quite aware of the blatant moralising which in turns reminds you of the constructed nature of the novel. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given the post-modern genre it is designed to fit into. 

The story is enjoyable, easy to read and fun to follow. You are constantly reminded that every text is a puzzle (as is the book itself, no doubt) and you're even given your own set of clues so you can engage with the novel even more after you've finished with the text. Flip to back for a crossword, Fletcher Pratt's Frequency Table, a vegan cake recipe and a list of the first 1000 prime numbers. 

Without giving away any more of the novel and the story, I'd say: read this book. It's enjoyable and easy to read, it's full of codes and puzzles, there's naval and pirating history and there's tea. There are some odd romancey bits which could have been left out and there are some unfinished ends, but I think that's just Thomas's style. 

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  1. Hi Stacey! I'm excited to here more about your trip home to CT. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to and I plan to return one day. I remember very lazy days on Llandudno beach and over in Simon's Bay....halcyon days. Re the recovery....if only I had someone who made cakes like you making tea for me...I'm sure my recovery would be much quicker!!! xxx

  2. Aw Andrea! I shall send you some tea directly! :) I hope you do recover very quickly! I shall update more about Cape Town soonest, I'm hoping to find a few minutes to sit down and upload all of my photographs very soon :) xx


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