Books to give you hope: PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

A madcap tale of anarchic insurrection at a toy factory, this is not just likable fiction: it’s a blueprint for a new kind of revolution

PopCo: it’s an awkward novel to read and it’s about awkward things. It could be read as a manual for how to be a difficult individual when all the pressure around you is to conform. It’s an anti-corporate story about making toys, an anti-hipster book about having dirty sex and vegan cake. It is very pro-sabotage. Really, what Scarlett Thomas’s novel is is a tonic for anyone who feels like every job turns you into a cog in a machine.

Under cover of what seems a light read – woman works at a toy company devising new toys for teenage girls – Thomas unravels a dense story of an underground society of rebels. Working at PopCo, our heroine Alice Butler meets a mysterious cast of fellow toymakers, while recalling adventures with her grandparents – a cryptologist and a mathematician. It’s inspiring to think that beneath the plain exterior of your fellow office workers lurks a band of anarchist revolutionaries. Even more exciting to think that the real agents of change around us aren’t the advertisers and the demagogues, but the people who love patterns in words and numbers. If there is hope here, it lies in crosswords and secret scribbled cipher notes.

We know we have to work for a living, but we also know office work crushes a revolutionary spirit. You could join your union, but you’re likely not sure if trade unions and labour activism are appropriate for office work. But in PopCo, Alice and her friends are guides to rebellion from the inside, offering tantalising ideas like bad advertising and bad customer service being a surreptitious strategy to show the cracks in the sheen of 21st-century capitalism.

It’s a love letter to the individuals who reject being part of a crowd, even when the masses claim to be doing something radical or different. In one key moment, Alice’s radical guide Esther rejects the idea of being at a modern music festival:

When you’re in the crowd, you’re a dot, a nothing, a statistic. I don’t want to be in the crowd. I’m not an insect.

Esther doesn’t want to be in the audience, but nor does she want to be in the band selling itself to the audience. She wants to be left to do something that feels authentic, and of her own choice. Alice has her own rejection of trendy mass culture, through coding and decoding messages that only one person can read. This story isn’t only a blueprint for destroying a corporation, it’s also one for escaping the crowd and having hope in your own individuality and awkwardness.

It sounds preposterous and that’s the joy of it. I love reading the book for its audaciousness, for using popular fiction to stir jaded idealists. I’m filled with hope that a modern novelist can be published who pays detailed attention to characters’ fashion senses and haircuts one moment, writes great sex scenes the next, and then suddenly proceeds to devote pages to why its central character is turning vegan – all the while providing graphic detail about the evil of the dairy industry. This isn’t stodgy activism, it feels like a new blueprint for revolution: miso soup and lipgloss, rather than bread and roses.

PopCo is idealistic, easy to patronise, naive and unashamedly political. It crams in many more ideas than novel-writing courses would say was appropriate. But if you don’t like that, you’re missing out. The book suggests that at any moment in your daily working routine, you might notice the magic and revolution in your workmates that changes your life and vindicates you. That’s enough to give you some hope in your nine-to-five.


Charlie Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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