I enjoy books for different reasons. Popco, by Scarlett Thomas, (ISBN 978-1847673350) is one of several novels I’ve read this summer and which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. It strikes me the novels I’ve read are all very different and I wondered if maybe I enjoyed such diversity in the same way I enjoy the company of diversely different people.
When it comes to a novel my main prerequisite is that it’s a good story. I love a good story, and this one drew me in right from the start. Popco, is an imaginary multinational toy company, supposed to be the third largest in the world, and the narrative takes place in a country retreat out in the wilds in southern England, where a select group of Popco employees are receiving classes in the mindsets of teenage girls to try and come up with some new products to crack this notoriously difficult sector of the market.
The narrator is a quirky, bright, highly intelligent young woman. She heads up one of Popco’s sections related to producing kits for children who want adventure – spy kits, code kits, survival kits and so on. She’s not someone who really fits in very easily with others, and I imagined her to be a bit like Chloe O’Brian from “24″ – geeky, socially clunky, very bright, and interesting! The novel interweaves the story of her early life brought up by her grandparents, one a maths genius, and the other a professional code-breaker, with her present day experience on the idea-generating retreat for Popco.
I think it was the rich and varied subject matter which really hooked me in this novel. I loved all the explanations about code-making and code-breaking (took me right back to my early teenage years), and I enjoyed the discussions about prime numbers and mathematical patterns. Also, almost as an aside, I loved the way she used homeopathy for self-care and explained the homeopathic method so clearly but modestly. What disturbed me most about the novel was the way the company worked. I don’t mean the structure. I mean the way it operated in the world, dividing children into demographic segments, codifying them according to their interests, desires, and maturity, then producing marketing campaigns to sell loads of branded merchandise and toys to them. I found that all scarily believable. It was all so manipulative, and slick. I think it’s the fact that it was a toy company targeting children that made it especially uncomfortable. I’m pretty cynical about marketing anyway, but this book just made me wake up again a bit, and see behind the TV schedules, comic and magazine tie-ups and marketing campaigns.
There are a couple of interwoven plots which drive the book along. One about a treasure map (yes, really!), and one about a fightback against globalisation and consumption. I enjoyed both of those plots, and I’m not going to reveal any detail about either of them (in case you decide to read the book)
I like novels which make me think, and ones where I learn something too, but I mostly like novels where the author tells a good story.