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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

PopCo

Popco, by Scarlett Thomas. I’m a perfect audience for this book, but I’m obviously not the intended audience for Allison Block, the ALA reviewer on Amazon.com:
Mathematical puzzles. Mind-bending codes. A secret manuscript. And a cake recipe, too. Thomas’ latest (after 2004’s Going Out) has a chronic case of attention deficit disorder. As the novel opens, Brit Alice Butler is en route to a retreat sponsored by her employer, PopCo, a cutting-edge — and slightly creepy — toy company. (Alice takes the midnight train to avoid colleagues — and human contact in general — an early indication that she is a little off-kilter.) It’s no wonder Alice considers herself an outsider; her father disappeared when she was nine, leaving her in the care of her grandparents, two quirky cryptanalysts privy to the whereabouts of a centuries-old buried treasure. Meanwhile, at the company conference, Alice and her colleagues are charged with developing the ultimate product for the teen-girl market. Alice is soon distracted from the task by mysterious encoded messages slipped under her door. Will deciphering them shape her future, or perhaps shed light on the past? Although Thomas’ premise is clever, her digressions into esoteric topics (Godel, anyone?) are likely to leave readers more exhausted than amused.
Clearly I couldn’t stay away from a novel when the review begins with, “Mathematical puzzles. Mind-bending codes.” But what does Block mean when she cites Alice’s desire to avoid human contact as “an early indication that she is a little off-kilter”? Sounds perfectly normal to me. And surely calling Gödel an “esoteric topic” is beyond the pale. (Also, his name is spelled either Gödel or Goedel, not Godel, but I shouldn’t point that out or else Block will think he’s even more esoteric.)

An appropriate analysis would point out not only that math puzzles, cryptography, and Gödel all help to make a novel that the reader can’t put down, but also that Thomas writes in a unique voice that lets the reader know her quirky narrator quickly and deeply. I’m only partway through at this point, so I can’t yet be confident about comparing it with Mark Haddon’s excellent novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but it’s already clear that they have similar sensibilities and similar rewards for the reader. It’s unlikely that Thomas can rise to Haddon’s level, but we’ll see. Stay tuned.

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