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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Scarlett Thomas

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To purchase PopCo

Title: PopCo
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 503 pages
Availability: PopCo - US
PopCo - UK
PopCo - Canada
PopCo - Deutschland
PopCo - Italia

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Our Assessment:

A- : very entertaining, well done -- until it is too neatly tied up

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian B- 28/8/2004 Isobel Montgomery
The Independent A- 16/8/2004 Kim Newman
Independent on Sunday . 22/8/2004 Christian House
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/10/2005 Dee Mondschein
Notices of the AMS . 2/2006 Alex Kasman
The Scotsman A+ 14/8/2004 Stuart Kelly
Sunday Times . 14/11/2004 Elizabeth Buchan
The Telegraph . 4/9/2004 Stephanie Cross
The Village Voice . 18/10/2005 Rachel Aviv

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with fairly mixed reactions -- though quite a few very much enjoyed it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though she captures the mindset of brand-savvy but insecure professionals, Thomas cannot decide whether she is writing a boarding-school adventure or a dystopic tale of global corporations. Thomas's writing is sharp and energetic, and she has to be congratulated for getting pirate treasure, cryptoanalysis, a cake recipe and some incisive asides to explain mathematical conundrums such as the Riemann hypothesis into one narrative. But it is a bulky read and the denouement is unexpectedly clumsy." - Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian

  • "Scarlett Thomas's PopCo is a big, zeitgeisty novel that free-associates in the way that only cyberpunk science-fiction used to be able to do. It is such enormous fun, and so peppered with sharp observations and satirical jabs, that it gets away with editorialising patches, a certain hastiness of composition that has the heroine's age drop a couple of years between chapters and means Edgar Allan Poe's name gets consistently misspelled (again), and a home stretch which works better as a call-to-arms than the ending to a novel. However, it's hard to resist a book which has so many good jokes and, furthermore, comes complete with a crossword puzzle, a list of prime numbers, a frequency chart for the occurrence of letters in English (bound to come in useful) and a recipe for "Let Them Eat Cake" cake." - Kim Newman, The Independent

  • "The various storylines complement each other well although sometimes Thomas literally loses the plot. As characters ponder the minutiae of such disparate topics as virtual retailing and homeopathic remedies, I was longing to get back to the action. This is small criticism though when balanced against the weight of ideas and downright chutzpah crammed into this book. Thomas has frequently been likened to Douglas Coupland, but where his recent output has seen a growing preoccupation with nostalgia, Thomas has her sights set on exploring the possibility of a future where substance defies style. This is a book that targets both heads and hearts." - Christian House, Independent on Sunday

  • "PopCo seems meant to tweak those on both sides of the corporate divide, the protesters on the outside of the office block and the suits within. When you're told to resist authority, don't forget to ask: says who ?" - Dee Mondschein, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Thomas’ ability to include mathematics in her fiction is impressive on several counts. She avoids two of the most common problems of mathematical fiction: awkwardly including technical prose that seems out of place, and relying too heavily on stereotypes. (...) PopCo has a subversive and lively style that appealed to me." - Alex Kasman, Notices of the AMS

  • "The story is compulsive, the ideas -- and they’re big ideas -- are seamlessly integrated and necessary to the plot. Frankly, this novel is a bewitching, dizzying triumph. (...) Yet one rule that Thomas doesn’t break is that the novel must entertain while it educates. Numerous plot mechanics, such as secret messages, the need for love and withheld solutions compel the reader through the book. Even when the heroine is marooned in bed with a cold, the pace never slackens. (...) I have no shadow of a doubt that this book will be a "cult classic". It’s more than that, though: a novel with a conscience and an attitude, uncondescendingly intelligent and emotionally affecting. It should be on the Man Booker shortlist and is strong enough to succeed even without that accolade." - Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman

  • "Stories unravel within stories, and there are elaborate riffs on codebreaking, mathematical theorems and the pure pleasure of the hunt through numbers. It is dense but not stodgy, ambitious, thought-provoking, fun and partisan -- with an ending that gives a tick to all the right values." - Elizabeth Buchan, Sunday Times

  • "Scarlett Thomas's novel has good intentions, but its adolescent earnestness and its morally fibrous manifesto can make for queasy reading." - Stephanie Cross, The Telegraph

  • "Thomas underscores Alice's disdain for consumer culture by telling the kind of story that's most easily sold: a mass-paperback-style mystery, involving secret codes and a treasure chest. (…) Although Thomas describes herself as "the kind of woman who should not be on the loose in the publishing industry, " her characters (…) are politically correct to the point of silliness." - Rachel Aviv, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of PopCo is Alice Butler, who works for the eponymous toy manufacturer -- the world's third-largest. The novel centres around her time at a fancy country estate in Devon where the company has it's big 'Open World event', a big corporate get-together (ominously called "Thought Camp"). Alice and several of her colleagues are also asked to stay on for a top-secret follow-up session in which they are to try to come up with a product line to reach an elusive consumer target: teenage girls.
       The novel moves back and forth between the present and Alice's accounts of her childhood. Her mother died, her father abandoned her, and she was raised by her mathematically-inclined grandparents, spending a great deal of time doing maths. Her grandfather spent his life trying to break two famous codes -- including one for a buried treasure -- while her grandmother was one of the few women mathematicians at Bletchley Park (where the British codebreakers cracked Enigma during World War II). Alice was recruited to PopCo after working setting crossword puzzles, and the brands she has developed there clearly reflect her background, the KidSpy, KidTec, and KidCracker kits allowing children to play at being spies, detectives, and code-breakers.
       The corporate activities at the retreat reinforce Alice's feelings of not really being fully on board with the PopCo programme: the relentless branding and marketing don't appeal to her: "It's all dishonest, all of it", she eventually concludes. Alice avoids being in any 'in' crowd, trying not to dress or act in yet another (artificially set in motion) trendy way, but she is constantly preoccupied with the importance of image and message, inescapable as it all is (especially at her job). In the childhood-recollection scenes Thomas does a good job of presenting the peer pressure and confusion of being a child and teen, and though susceptible, Alice for the most part avoided being part of the herd -- which, of course, also made her an outcast.
       There are a variety of activities going on in Devon, including all sorts of presentations and exercises to help the workers with their project , but Alice has a lot else going on too: someone is sending her coded messages, the boss has a crush on her, she hooks up with a colleague, makes some new friends, and gets sick (allowing her to avoid many of the presentations and spend the time alone in her room). The corporate/marketing satire is good fun, as Thomas presents the far too believable presentations and team-building games, as well as the interactions between this group of quirky PopCo workers. There's that touch of romance -- is the affair with Ben just a fling ? --, quite a bit of suspense -- who is sending those coded messages ? will they come up with a product to seduce teenage-girl-consumers ? -- and a few open questions about Alice's past that are only slowly revealed, from why her father ran out to what the deal with the buried treasure is.
       If the present-day action is clever and entertaining, it's the second layer of narrative, in which Alice recounts her childhood, that really adds depth to the novel. Thomas plays it a bit fast and loose, but it is certainly engaging, and hard to resist. The girl's maths-enthusiasm comes across as genuine:

     This particular instalment of the story takes me back in time to learn about someone called Georg Cantor. He invented set theory !
       More importantly, Thomas doesn't condescend to her readers in how she treats the maths: PopCo is full of codes and code-breaking and number theory and factoring primes, and she manages to avoid having to revert to a textbook-tone in trying to explain everything. Instead, it's almost all very well integrated into the text, Alice convincingly presenting it like someone very familiar with the material might. Rarely have maths been integrated so smoothly into a work of fiction.
       Thomas gets Alice's childhood-confusion -- trying to fit in, recognising the costs of fitting in -- down very well (beginning, brilliantly, with Alice making do after her father abandons her). In Devon Alice is still trying to work it out, and there are long stretches where Thomas manages that very well too. This is a novel of big ideas (and, specifically, of how we should live our lives), but her treatment of the many issues -- straying from labour practices to vegetarianism -- isn't unpleasantly or awkwardly forced into the story; Thomas really weaves a whole narrative around it.
       For much of the book, this is a great ride -- an exciting, constantly thought-provoking, often very funny story (or set of stories). So it comes as a slight let down when Thomas can only pull it all together in fairly simplistic form. The evil of capitalism and the lie of marketing, appealingly exposed along the way, are now too obviously the target -- and Alice learns she isn't at all alone. Throw in the billion-dollar treasure and the perfectly happy end isn't anywhere near as satisfying as everything that came before.
       Despite the too-easy ending, PopCo is well worth reading. Thomas is a real talent and writes very well. She tells a good story and she puts a lot of thought into it: this is a book that really engages the reader with its arguments -- and many of them are very worthy arguments, too. It ultimately becomes a bit too forced-didactic, but she has a great run for most of the book, and it's a thrill to be along for the ride.
       This is also a book that one should really shove in kids' faces: it's hard to see how they could resist, and the issues (and the way they're addressed) are certainly relevant in this overwhelmingly consumerist age. The focus on Alice's girl- (and adult-) experiences may make it sound -- to some boys -- like it's solely for the girls, but between the codes, the buried treasure, the general anti-authoritarian streak (and the gratuitous sex) there should be enough to get some lads to crack it open (which should be enough to get them hooked). We look forward to the day when schools assign this as summertime reading.
       Very good, and certainly recommended.

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PopCo: Reviews: Scarlett Thomas: Other books by Scarlett Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Scarlett Thomas was born in 1972.

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