PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

Lara Croft meets David Brent at Mallory Towers
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The Independent Culture

During a school holiday in the mid-Eighties my sister and I invented a game called Slipperball. This involved kneeling at opposite ends of our landing with a slipper on one hand walloping a tennis ball down the corridor towards the door behind the opposition. With the added kudos of parental disapproval, it remained to us what polo is to the Windsors. The random genesis of such simple childhood pursuits lies at the core of Scarlett Thomas's latest novel PopCo, her funny, ambitious follow-up to Going Out.

Alice Butler, Thomas's feisty heroine, is a "creative" at PopCo, the UK's third largest toy manufacturer. It's an utterly contemporary firm: no set working hours, no dress code and no rules. Her days are spent with the rest of the "Ideation and Design" team, brainstorming and developing products for pre-teens to spend their disposable income on. For their AGM, or "Open World" event, the whole company converge on PopCo's "Thought Camp" based in a remote, rambling old hall on Dartmoor. Here, amidst a bizarre collection of executives, IT geeks and over-zealous videogamers, she is chosen to help an elite crew come up with a new fad for teenage girls. Something "more viral than SARS".

It's as if the lovechildren of Lara Croft and David Brent are marooned in Mallory Towers trying to invent a deeley bopper for the Noughties. Alice hates it. Though excited by progress, she's ill at ease with its implications. There's much at the hall that appears sinister, especially when anonymous encrypted messages start arriving at her dorm room. How far will PopCo go to extend the profit margins? What are the limits of any multinational, for that matter? And what are the moral ramifications of selling plastic tat to children?

All this West Country weirdness is peppered with flashbacks into Alice's past. Brought up by her grandparents (veterans of Bletchley Park and consummate mathematicians), Alice is raised on the wonders of cryptanalysis, ciphers and puzzles. And, it slowly transpires, she holds the key to a 17th-century riddle decoded by her grandfather: one which could lead to a pirate's stash of loot.

The various storylines complement each other well although sometimes Thomas literally loses the plot. As characters ponder the minutiae of such disparate topics as virtual retailing and homeopathic remedies, I was longing to get back to the action. This is small criticism though when balanced against the weight of ideas and downright chutzpah crammed into this book. Thomas has frequently been likened to Douglas Coupland, but where his recent output has seen a growing preoccupation with nostalgia, Thomas has her sights set on exploring the possibility of a future where substance defies style.

This is a book that targets both heads and hearts. In doing so, it highlights the fun inherent in individuality, the singular relationship between children and their grandparents and how no amount of focus groups and "think tanks" can replicate the imagination of a young mind. Oh, and a final note to Hasbro, Mattel et al: the concept of Slipperball remains the intellectual property of me and my sister. Don't get any ideas.

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