by Scarlett Thomas

I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation. The book is PopCo by Scarlett Thomas.

I have to admit I was terribly jealous of Alice, our heroine, but not because she was rich, or tall, or glamorous, in fact she’s not any of those things. Alice is something I have longed for my entire life — she’s a genius at math.  Alice works for PopCo, which we learn is the third largest toy company in the world, based in England. PopCo is one of those fun, wacky, think-outside-the-box places to work, and Alice is in charge of producing cryptography — spy toys — for kids. PopCo, where wacky fun is carefully enforced, sends Alice and her colleagues to a remote farm to focus on how to separate teen girls from more of their money. At first, Alice seems simply quirky, but she has a secret, a big one. And so do her coworkers. In fact almost everyone in this book is hiding something. There is much discussion of exotic math theories, which lost me to an embarrassing degree, but the mysteries are very mysterious, the English countryside is misty, and the payoff  is very satisfying.

I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Take Five. The book is PopCo by Scarlett Thomas.

When I was in high school, all I wanted was to grow up and get out. If I really belived those were the best days of my life, I would have thrown myself under a bus. Fortunately it didn’t come to that, and I got my wish. I grew up and entered the working world. At last, I could relax, and feel truly free to express myself… No more backstabbing, no more gossip or head games, and no more cliques of cool kids whispering behind their hands pointing and laughing. Come on, either you were a laugher or a laughee.  Yeah, imagine my surprise when I finally got a real job. Corporate culture…either you’re an insider, or you’re on the sidelines at the holiday party, watching your boss dance and rolling your eyes. Do you sell out and watch your soul wither, or do you stick to your guns and eat ramen noodles for the rest of your life?

In PopCo, Alice Butler navigates her way through a uniquely contemporary kind of corporate culture — the huge toy company is edgy, hip, fun, nothing is defined and weirdness is rewarded…of course, it’s all in good fun as long as it adds to the bottom line. When PopCo sends its best employees to a seminar out in the English countryside, Alice starts receiving coded messages. That’s when we start to learn that Alice is a lot more than an oddball girl with a background in math. Raised by her eccentric, math whiz grandparents,  she’s a code cracking prodigy. She’s also got a huge secret and I’m  proud to say there is a pirate involved.  Whoever is sending the messages has a big secret as well, and Thomas paces this book so well, piecing her secrets out a bit at a time, that it would be very unfair of me to say any more about that. Large sections of the book are flashbacks to Alice’s experiences in high school, and they are cringeworthy. There are also large sections devoted to some exotic math and cryptology problems, and while these might as well have been written in Swahili, I am assured by my math genius boyfriend that they are real problems and they are correctly represented. On the other hand, he was trying to take a nap while I was asking about them, so who knows? The seminar itself, a series of team-building exercise, was all about teenaged girls and separating them from their money. It was at once so fake-fun and so cold-blooded that I wanted to just go stock up on ramen noodles.  I loved watching the purposefully quirky and suspicious Alice trying, against her better judgement, to fit in to the cool kids crowd at work, and the description of the corporate-enforced fun dynamic made me glad I work at a really fun, hip, edgy outside-the-box place like XM.

Want to talk about books? Email me at Kim dot Alexander at xmradio dot com.

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