If you were to sequentially lay out the events that transpired in PopCo, it wouldn't look like there's a lot going on.
On the surface, it's the story of Alice Butler, a developer of children's codebreaking games for a multi-national toy company PopCo, who goes to a conference and gets chosen to develop a special product. She meets interesting people with anti-corporation tendencies and falls in with them. Along the way, she reminisces about her youth and her relationship with her brilliant grandparents, and contemplates the mystery of the locket her grandfather left her.
That's basically it. Looks like a lackluster narrative, certainly nothing to keep one hooked page after page, but as it happened, I was. The meat of PopCo
is the wealth of ideas woven in and out of the narrative, a tapestry of history and theories and ideologies that all come together to form a resolution that was as logical as it was inevitable.
What I love about Scarlett Thomas's books (or at least, this and The End of Mr. Y
) is that you can never read them passively. Ideas and experiments you've never heard of before emerge entwined within the plot and you have to stop and consider them before you can move on. I love learning about thought experiments and lateral thinking.
I'll admit though that this was not a perfect book that blew my mind the way The End of Mr. Y
did. I glazed over the mathematical parts that required the reader to do some calculation, and sometimes it bothered me how Alice was constantly thinking about fitting in and not fitting in. Her obsession with this almost eclipsed who she was. I understand that her feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo are relevant elements of the story, but it felt a bit like being browbeaten sometimes. I understood where the story wanted to go, but sometimes you don't want to be knocked out of a story with an "Oh, I see what she's doing. I know where this is going." You just want to be taken there.
A lot of this story just trails off at the end. It ends with a fading echo rather than a bang. If I were to read this book again, it would not be for the story or the characters or even the smatterings of the somewhat charming romance that springs up.
The main gem in Scarlett Thomas's literary repertoire is that tapestry I mentioned, the glittering collection of ideas and histories. These explanations and depictions of thought explorations are where her writing truly comes to life, and that's what I'll be coming back for.