Magnificent mindgames

PopCo™

BY SCARLETT THOMAS

4th Estate, 12.99

TOO OFTEN, THE "NOVEL of ideas" is a cumbersome and ungainly form: think of Iris Murdoch, with those characters who fortuitously spout Wittgenstein over dinner, or the po-faced, programmatic debates in Umberto Eco’s fictions. Either the narrative flags, or the ideas seem patched on.

Scarlett Thomas’s new work, conversely, strikes the balance perfectly. The story is compulsive, the ideas - and they’re big ideas - are seamlessly integrated and necessary to the plot. Frankly, this novel is a bewitching, dizzying triumph.

Alice, the heroine, works as a "creative" for the multinational toy company, PopCo. On the surface, it’s a laid-back, ber-cool environment, reliant on the quirkiness of its employees (in Alice’s case, a propensity for crosswords and code-breaking inherited from her grandparents) to keep its cutting-edge reputation. This belies its sinister and rotten core. Alice is co-opted on to a top-secret project, to design a "killer" brand that will capture and convert that recalcitrant demographic, the teenage girl.

Her own memories are therefore an internal focus group and in wistful flashbacks we learn about the grandparents with whom she grew up. She was with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is working on the Reimann Hypothesis; he was a conscientious objector, undercover operative and is working on a never-deciphered 17th-century treasure map.

Yet one rule that Thomas doesn’t break is that the novel must entertain while it educates. Numerous plot mechanics, such as secret messages, the need for love and withheld solutions compel the reader through the book. Even when the heroine is marooned in bed with a cold, the pace never slackens. "Wit", in the dictionary sense of "the power of combining ideas with a pointed verbal effect", crackles across every page.

These talents are employed for a deeply serious end. Alice, like Lewis Carroll’s heroine, may be in a mathematical wonderland, but Thomas is sharp enough to unpack the more gruesome connotations around that particular fable. The parallels between PopCo’s interest in young girls and paedophilic abuse become more insistent and frightening. There is an endemic anxiety, a relentless horror that extends far beyond grooming the consumer. "How much blood, pain, slavery and torture exactly does go into creating all this stuff, which we are told is so frivolous, so much fun?" PopCo™’s power lies in answering this question with a manifesto. This book literally recruits the reader.

I have no shadow of a doubt that this book will be a "cult classic". It’s more than that, though: a novel with a conscience and an attitude, uncondescendingly intelligent and emotionally affecting. It should be on the Man Booker shortlist and is strong enough to succeed even without that accolade.

• Scarlett Thomas will be appearing at Thirsty Lunch in the Meadow Bar, Venue 264, at 12:30pm on 20 August.