Review: PopCo

Scarlett Thomas’ sixth novel, PopCo follows Alice Butler, a cryptographer and erstwhile crossword-setter who’s now working for PopCo, the third-largest toy company in the world, as a Person Who Has Ideas. Once upon a time, PopCo asks Alice and a group of her colleagues to stay in a remote country house on Dartmoor to come up with a product that will help them break into the teenage market and thereby dominate the toy industry. Or something.

Despite her protestations otherwise, Alice is pretty cynical about the function of a toy company under late capitalism:

The words ‘toy company’ usually make people think of fluffy things and wooden blocks…In fact, these days, toys are more likely to involve fast food promotions, film tie-ins, interactivity, ‘added value’, super-branding and, of course, focus groups observed through one-way mirrors.

This, on page 5. (A couple of pages later: “That’s not to say I’m cynical”, she says, dubiously.) And therein lies the rub: the novel is clearly meant to chart Alice’s descent into disaffection with the industry she works in, and by extension the system of shallow consumerism it serves. But she’s already pretty disaffected at the start of the novel, and her clear-eyed understanding of what she and her colleagues are actually doing at work, behind the wacky idea-generating activities (when the novel begins, Alice has just returned from two weeks’ paid leave doing research for her toy brands), never really changes.

Sure: she becomes vegetarian, learns about ethical fashion and has some thoughts about how big corporations monetise identity. But, when it comes down to it, Thomas’ discussion of consumerist culture is a little…sophomoric – more introductory article than sustained critique. An example, from the very first page:

I know people who would make all sorts of assumptions about the clothes I am wearing. They would assume I had chosen a ‘look’…Even if I wore – as I have done in the past – a truly random selection of weird clothes, this would simply be labelled my ‘Jumble Sale’ or ‘Homeless’ look. I hate this so much.

This idea that consumerist culture co-opts all the choices you can make into its own system of signification is one that crops up throughout the novel. And…I can kiiind of see what Alice is getting at: consumerism’s inescapability, its ubiquitousness. But, also: this is what fashion does? This is what clothes have always been for? In every culture clothes are used to signify and perform status. It is not a feature unique to late capitalism. What Alice is actually talking about is the ubiquitousness of culture, which is another thing altogether. On a purely aesthetic level, her educated but shallow take on fashion makes her come across as kind of a whiny hipster.

This shallowness characterises the novel in more ways than one. Intertwined with Alice’s work for PopCo and her gradual enlightenment as to the Evils of Consumerism are chapters about her childhood living with her grandfather, a well-known cryptographer who left her a mysterious necklace with a code she’s never been able to crack. These threads sort of get tied together narratively at the end of the novel, but I’m not quite sure what Thomas is doing thematically. I’m not very interested in thinking about it, either, because many of these chapters are basically indigestible infodumps about codes and cryptography and look, if I wanted a detailed description of prime factorisation I would have read a reference book, not a novel. (The Voynich Manuscript is super interesting, though. I want a whole novel about the Voynich Manuscript.)

My reading of PopCo has definitely suffered from my knowledge of Thomas’ writing methods, as outlined in her (nevertheless quite useful) writing guide Monkeys with Typewriters. Thomas suggests using bits and pieces of experience from your own life to generate characters with believable quirks. Alas, knowing this meant that, for me, it was difficult to see Alice as a “real person” rather than what she actually is, a random collection of traits lumped together on the page. She was just Too Hipster, too Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to be entirely convincing and/or satisfying.

I’ve also lost a lot of goodwill for Thomas’ work since I learned that she puts a lot of stock in homeopathy. I have nothing against homeopathy per se, as a traditional remedy for occasional headaches, mild anxiety, light colds and so on; but when I read a scene in which a doctor prescribes a million billion different drugs for Our Heroine so that she can then forswear actual clinically tested medicine as unnecessary and dangerous and suspect, in favour of homeopathy, well, that makes me more than a little annoyed.

When I was about seventeen I was going through a very rough patch and they tried to give me Prozac. I didn’t need pills, I just needed to get hold of my life.

Because “pills” are Bad and doctors are Always Wrong and giving teenagers possibly life-saving drugs is a symptom of a diseased society.

Also, unrelatedly, I just found this in my copy of PopCo and it’s made me angry all over again. Alice is musing on the fact that a male-coded doll sold with a nurse uniform was made in China:

How nice that in this country we are on to messing around with gender roles while in so many foreign-owned factories it’s still impossible to form a union and get fair pay, whether you are a man, woman or child.

Fuck off? It’s not a zero sum game? Re-imagining gender roles and making sure workers get paid are not mutually exclusive aims? (In fact I’m inclined to think of them as two sides of the same coin, but it’s late, let’s not get into that now.)

I’m probably grossly misrepresenting my actual experience of reading PopCo, which was largely pleasant. Thomas’ characters are engaging if not entirely believable, her satire on corporate culture is fun, and it’s always satisfying to read a takedown of late capitalism. It’s just that the whole thing has this pious, holier-than-thou undertone which is really quite unpleasant when you stop and think about it – especially given how underbaked Thomas’ critique of consumerism actually is. It’s a novel that, more than anything, wants to make you feel guilty – about what you eat, what you wear, what form your self-care takes, how you identify. It’s an ugly impulse, and it makes ultimately for an ugly book.

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