By Scarlett Thomas
Harcourt. 505 pp. Paperback, $14
Scarlett Thomas's "PopCo" has all the elements of a page-turner, if only the pages were light enough to turn. The novel's setup couldn't be better. There is a heroine, Alice Butler, who wears a locket inscribed with a mysterious message. She works for an evil toy company, PopCo, with designs to take over the world by brainwashing children. At a PopCo retreat, in which Alice is chosen to be part of an exclusive think tank, someone is watching her very closely and sending her eerie, coded messages. . . .
Such a rich premise would have been enough to keep the pages turning, but Thomas can't help but heap on more plot: Alice's grandfather may have decoded a pirate's treasure map, and her father -- who abandoned her early in life -- may be on a boat right now with the map searching for bounty. Could this be why the members of the PopCo Thought Camp are taking classes on sailing? And what was Alice's grandmother, the famous mathematician, doing up in her study all those years ago? And what is Ben, Alice's vegan boyfriend, hiding?
Unfortunately, a whole lot of mystery does not necessarily a good mystery story make. For all its intrigue and puzzle-work, "PopCo" is exhausting reading. Part social satire and part mathematics textbook, the novel is a miscellany of ideas and concepts connected by a weak narrative thread. That thread is the book's 29-year-old narrator, Alice, a geeky misfit who loves math and codes and is ill-prepared for the adult world as symbolized by this slightly sinister toy company. Alice has her own "constant conundrum," which is "how do you identify yourself as someone who doesn't fit in when everything you could possibly do demarcates you as someone who does?" Which roughly translated means: Who will I date, and what kind of company will I ultimately work for?
These are the questions Harriet the Spy might ask herself had she reached adulthood. They are valuable and interesting in their own right, but domestic bliss is not the author's central worry. She's concerned with the exploitation of children and animals in our society. When it works, "PopCo" offers a critique on the power struggles between those who run corporations and the underlings whose ideas fuel the machine -- the "creatives," as Thomas wryly calls them.
It's a big message, and it would have made an interesting novel on its own, given Thomas's special talent for serving up cultural critique and the cold ironies of office life. "Routine kills creative thought" is one of PopCo's mottos, a mantra repeated routinely throughout the novel. It's the brainchild of PopCo's brilliant CEO, Steve "Mac" MacDonald, who has been named in homage to that very large, non-vegetarian corporation that exploits animals and hooks children on unhealthy food by giving them free tie-in promotional toys with their meals.
But the central story line becomes obscured by too much information. Thomas may well be the genius she has written about; she knows marketing books, trend studies, guides on selling products to children, the ins and outs of virtual reality, why Hello Kitty was a failure, as well as Douglas Hofstadter's "Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid." Unfortunately, Thomas seems to have written "PopCo" in a state of research rapture, unable to discriminate between what facts to leave in and what to leave out. Nineteen pages are devoted to the biography of a 15th-century pirate, who may or may not have kissed his sister in an orchard. Teaching the reader how to decode messages using a tool called the Vigenere Square, Thomas writes: "Mono-alphabetic ciphers are always crackable because of frequency analysis. . . . But what if you could scramble the frequencies of letters by making different ciphertext letters stand for different plaintext letters throughout the message?"
What if, indeed. It's a hard concept to bend your mind around. If you scramble the letters in "PopCo: A Novel" you find this hidden message: PEN A COOL P.O.V. But novels need more than a cool point-of-view. Weighing in at 505 pages, "PopCo" reads as if Thomas sat down at the computer after doing her research and wrote and wrote and never once looked back. (The real puzzle: Where was her editor?)
The novel will appeal most to those who came of age in our current toy-glutted culture -- geeky nonconformists, perhaps, who wear long coats and carry exotic cigarette holders.