Alice Butler takes the overnight train alone. She wears a necklace given to her as a child by her grandfather. The necklace has been engraved with a secret code. Alice has never been able to crack it.
British author Scarlett Thomas is a master describer of appealing solitary spaces. The End of Mr. Y, before introducing a dream world of telepathy and mice gods, opens in a disheveled used bookshop where the protagonist escapes a sudden rain shower. Our Tragic Universe renders a seaside cottage in such a specific, homey ways it makes the reader want to curl up inside the book itself. Alice, PopCo’s solo night train passenger, is another of Thomas’s resourceful young women, grounded loners with pragmatic approaches to life that nonetheless allow for fantastic circumstances – maybe not quite supernatural but at least more-than-natural.
Her books tend to introduce a piece of magic yet keep this magic in periphery, sometimes to a comic degree. In The Seed Collectors, the characters have inherited mystical seed pods that contain the secret of enlightenment; the book is mostly an intergenerational family drama. Bright Young Things sets up a remote island murder mystery in the vein of And Then There Were None, but the villain has died of a heart attack before killing anyone.
In PopCo, the code Alice wears contains the details on how to find a buried pirate treasure. Thomas doles out the story of Alice’s youth and of the treasure in flashbacks interspersed with her present predicament. One would think that the plotline in the present, wherein a cryptologist wears the directions to a chest of doubloons around her neck the entire time, would involve a globe-trotting hunt for that treasure. One would be wrong.
Instead PopCo finds Alice struggling with a different secret quest. She designs toys for PopCo, the third-largest toy company on the planet behind Mattel and Hasbro. At a remote corporate retreat nestled among the picturesque ruins of fortresses and battles past, Alice is selected for an elite group that will work in isolation to invent a product to catch on with the only demographic that has eluded the company: teenage girls. Alice, best known as the designer of the KidCracker spy kit that teaches children how to communicate with secret codes not unlike the one she wears, isn’t sure why she’s been selected for this assignment. On top of everything, Alice begins receiving coded messages from an unknown correspondent. I KNEW YOU COULD READ THIS says the first. The sender is familiar with Alice’s unique background. She decodes a second message: ARE YOU HAPPY? it asks.
The mysteries from Alice’s past and present begin to echo. Throughout both timelines puzzles and codes form a lingua franca. One of the company’s mandatory group activities is to discuss the old lateral thinking puzzle where a man in a restaurant takes a bite of his albatross soup then promptly leaves and kills himself. The group is supposed to work out what circumstances precipitated the grim scenario but Alice knows the answer because she’s read that one before. The solution to the lateral thinking activity offered in the corporate bonding activity is, to Alice’s thinking, bullshit. She prefers the one where a young woman on a path covered in white and black pebbles has to think fast to avoid becoming the slave of an evil rich man. The first “puzzle” is more of a parlor game – there is no possible way to get to the solution with the information given. The second has a satisfying solution that can be reasoned, or at least will produce a loud “Ahh, of course!” when revealed.
Alice is a quick and clever solver, a self-made rather than preternatural genius. She’s been exposed to the riddles and techniques well-known to a particular subset of people, namely cryptographers and puzzle column aficionados. Alice’s grandfather spent his life on unsolved ciphertexts like the Voynich Manuscript and her grandmother was a mathematician who cracked Nazi communications alongside Alan Turing. In flashbacks young Alice is surrounded by prime factors, theorems and letter frequency analysis. The necklace – this story’s magic – was given to her during this time.
But readers whose families didn’t hang out a Bletchley Park may recognize the lateral thinking puzzles descriptions above and know the answers without heading to Google. In recognizing these puzzles the reader realizes they and the author crossed paths at some point in their journeys of curiosity. PopCo raises several of these brain teaser signposts: the Monty Hall problem, Erdős numbers and six degrees of Kevin Bacon, John Horton Conway’s Game of Life, the probability that two people out of a group of 23 have the same birthday. One chapter walks step by step alongside Alice as she decrypts a message, reproducing a Vigenère square when necessary.
The pleasure of recognizing some corner of nerdy reading is kin to the pleasure of solving a puzzle. Alice’s first cryptic message is indeed the root message of any good puzzle: I KNEW WE COULD UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER.
As for the second message, Alice could be happier. Pop culture is a language that connects people and communicate messages in the same way as a code, and PopCo’s toys are a way of inserting themselves in that process to make a buck or two billion. Alice’s employer is trying to backwards engineer teenage girls and they’re using Alice’s unique skills to do it. PopCo is the kind of duplicitous megalith we’ve grown accustomed to in business and private life, the kind of company that provides for all the needs and desires of their creatives during a retreat while exploiting overseas labor to create the products those creatives dream up. Alice numerates PopCo’s covert marketing strategies including websites with faux bloggers subtly pushing their products. One the most insidious facets to Alice’s thinking is K, a “mirror brand” targeted to anti-label consumers seeking smaller, supposedly independent manufacturers, unaware that all their spending finds its way to the same vault.
Alice has been aware of the long reach of consumerism but only now does her complicity begin to grate at her conscious. She glimpses a consumerist singularity on the horizon when she encounters another PopCo employee named Kiernan. (K)iernan gleefully works on a new frontier of self-perpetuating marketing, virtual products to be sold in virtual gaming worlds (the real future goes beyond Thomas’s imagining as even novice game players regularly purchase non-existent goods for non-existent worlds with pocket-sized computers). Kiernan is down with connecting through consumerism in a way foreign to Alice. Mostly she’s found new friends and pleasing connection with the others at the retreat, but she fails to find a link with Kiernan. He wants to compare DVD collections by way of introducing themselves (Alice has none). In Kiernan’s world, there is no identity without purchase.
PopCo isn’t about Alice discovering the nature of the consumerism beast whose belly she occupies. She’s aware of PopCo’s insidious marketing the same way she’s always been aware that manufacturing often involves animal cruelty or sweatshop labor. Whatever surrounds you becomes comfortable (the Milgram experiments are another touchstone). Instead it’s about her finding a new angle on the beast.
She beings to notice the connections that happen without the aid of products. Esther, another new acquaintance, doodles a cube – a square followed by perspective lines then shade the side – and is a little surprised to witness somebody doodling the same way she does. And possibly the reader has doodled this way, or later smiles at a memory of a child learning the proper way to sneak up a staircase (walk on the edges), or has the same exact connotation of the word “moor” even before The Hound of the Baskervilles is mentioned. These are souvenirs of places we’ve been, the t-shirts and branded shot glasses from bookworm travels.
Alice is now a teenager in the flashbacks, attempting to fit in with the other girls at school. In the present, Alice feverishly cracks the teen assignment. Her toy idea – a kind of modernized charm bracelet – sounds plausible as a genuine bankable idea (surely it was brought up in meetings at Mattel). PopCo’s approach to solving teenage girls appeals to Alice as a challenge but her brain – and body as she falls ill – ultimately rejects an assignment that would use her introspection to infect the population and make it leak more cash to her employer. Puzzles and codes, like knives and guns and words, can be tools of war. PopCo’s mission is warlike, of a piece with the ruined forts of conflicts past. For PopCo, solutions aren’t connections, they’re maps to treasure.
Ironically, the disruption that PopCo uses to keep its employees’ ideas fresh knocks Alice out of the fold and into action. Ultimately, Alice joins a new kind of Bletchley Park to fight a new kind of war. If messages can be coded to support corporate greed, they can be coded to fight the same. Her accumulation of knowledge and experience has connected her to likeminded compatriots. The promise of the puzzle has been fulfilled.
And because the book respects a good puzzle, the story does give the answer to the coded necklace’s secret in the final pages (after a cake recipe and a crossword). The solution turns on one of those glorious palm-to-the-forehead epiphanies. Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll recognize it next time.
If this is the kind of novel that sounds exciting to you, EMQLBIFRHYLIWSLWASLVPL.