Book review: PopCo

Maths and Marketing: I was intrigued by the subject matter of Scarlett Thomas’ PopCo as I’m not (at all) proficient in the former which I find somewhat frustrating, and work in the latter. I had no doubt that its discussions around advertising would be rather Big Brother-ish, but I’m always up for a story that makes you think and question the life you’ve got used to.

What I didn’t expect was getting lost in a world of code, secrets, and corporate sabotage. Thomas has weaved a sense of rebellion into this story that could convince even the most passive worker to reconsider the motivations of their company.

It took me some time to warm to the main character of Alice; she is not your typical novel heroine and that meant I wasn’t quite expecting her – a sad comment on the role of women in literature I’m sure. So it was in fact refreshing to read about a woman who didn’t have a conventional, external allure – she braids her hair, wears corduroy skirts (not for religious or ironic purposes, it’s just what she wears), she’s fiercely intelligent, a little socially awkward, but cracks on with life. Getting in to her head I noticed affinities with my own personality which are often dismissed or avoided by authors. A slight tendency for over-thinking and anxiety, a desire to learn at every opportunity, a subtle but strong reaction against the ‘cool’ and popular.

Alice grew up raised by grandparents very advanced in the fields of mathematics and cryptography, so rather than watching cartoons she learned prime factorisation and how to create ciphers. In adult life, she ends up working for PopCo, a children’s toy company where she develops ‘kid-spy’ kits. Whilst on a company conference in Dartmoor she unravels more about her past, delves deeper into her own desires, and develops a greater awareness of her power.

It’s hard to write much more without giving things away – it’s a relatively long book, interspersed with cipher grids and crosswords, and I think I need to read it once or twice more to fully understand the complexities of the theories and concepts presented. But if you’re after something that will make you think hard, test your knowledge, and challenge your perceptions, this is the book for you. A bit of history, philosophy, and homeopathy thrown in for good measure, Thomas has written a quirky yet important novel about the way we interact with marketing and each other, and the consequences of our actions.


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