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Woman on the edge

PopCo A Novel Scarlett Thomas Harcourt: 506 pp., $14 paper

November 13, 2005|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

SCARLETT THOMAS, who is 33, cogently depicted her generation's discontents in three offbeat mysteries and two somewhat more mainstream novels, but there was a slightly tentative quality to this talented British writer's sharply observed portraits of "bright young things" (as one of the books was satirically titled). Mildly alienated from the society around them, her characters didn't seem able to move beyond a knowing irony and rueful fondness for human peculiarity. Neither did their author, for that matter.

No longer. In "PopCo," one of Thomas' trademark, vaguely morose protagonists finally applies herself to a big subject: a culture so thoroughly commercialized that those who've grown up in its clutches find it hard even to imagine operating outside its parameters. Employees of the novel's eponymous toy company consider themselves hip and free because PopCo has "no dress code, no rules and no set working hours," narrator Alice Butler tells us. As creepy details emerge about how the company ensures that its products are "the glittery and magical, the fast and addictive" toys that kids want, the author weaves her scathing critique of consumerism into an intriguing meditation on the nature of 21st century identity, a contemporary bildungsroman about Alice's moral education.

As the novel opens, Alice, who works in Ideation and Design, is on her way to PopCo's annual brainstorming session in Devon at one of its four global Thought Camps. The Orwellian echo is probably deliberate, but Thomas' true precursor is Aldous Huxley as she caustically delineates the degradation of ideas into marketing tools and the reduction of people to their consumption patterns. "But you won't tell me anything about yourself!" complains a colleague when Alice refuses to enumerate the contents of her DVD, CD or video collections. "I won't tell you what I own," she replies. "Which is different."

Alice is different -- or at least she tries to be. When PopCo hired her, she was working for a newspaper creating crossword puzzles, a knack she inherited from her grandfather, along with his gift for math and cryptography. Raised by her grandparents after her mother died and her father vanished, she was an outsider at school, where she acquired a deep suspicion of groups and a painful knowledge of what the desire to belong can make you do. Disdaining her co-workers' obsession with cool clothes and possessions, she learns, isn't enough to distinguish her at PopCo, where "[n]othing is automatically uncool any more, which is another way of saying you can sell anything, if you know how."

It appears at first that Alice's rebellion will consist exclusively of such cynical remarks, which allow her to feel superior to her workmates without challenging the corporate status quo. (Thomas quietly makes the point that this is the attitude of most people, overwhelmed by a world that "seems like too big a thing to try to save.") Alice is jolted out of her passivity at Thought Camp by being selected for a special team whose mandate is "to design a new product, with specific potential to become a craze, for teenage girls.... We want to make something here that is more viral than SARS," PopCo's creative director cheerfully explains.

Attending research seminars that anatomize children's insecurities as a means of boosting sales, Alice finds memories of her own difficult childhood flooding back. She gets sick and spends a lot of time in her dormitory room guzzling homeopathic remedies while trying to decipher the mysterious coded messages someone is slipping under her door. The intricate explanations of cryptoanalysis are surprisingly fascinating; Thomas skillfully references the cracking of the Enigma code during World War II and the work Alice's grandfather did on two famous unsolved encrypted manuscripts to help readers understand the intellectual appeal PopCo's marketing "puzzles" hold for her reluctant heroine. But Alice's doubts about her job are multiplying, stimulated by other employees who share her misgivings. To make products that act like viruses, "[i]t's pretty sinister, don't you think?" remarks Ben, the nice guy she's casually fallen into bed with; fellow PopCo-ite Esther, another new friend, says bluntly, "It's all dishonest."

Esther should know; her job is to invent online "personas" who enthuse about PopCo products on trumped-up websites. The dream machine fueled by her labors, Alice acknowledges over the course of the narrative, has real-life consequences: cheap toys for the privileged are manufactured by Asian workers who make pitiful wages and "regularly lose limbs" in PopCo's unsafe factories. What should she do with this unwelcome awareness of her complicity? How can she live up to the ideals of her beloved grandfather?

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