Option Escape: Scarlett Thomas’s Squeaks and Geeks


In 2000, Scarlett Thomas and 14 other British authors called themselves the New Puritans and wrote a manifesto demanding that fiction be “real” and “simple,” “shun poetry,” and “avoid elaborate punctuation.” Although the movement soon dissolved, Thomas still sticks to many of its rules. Her prose is as casual as an e-mail: “oh god,” “everything’s so fucked up,” “or something.” In her fifth novel, Popco, which she wrote on a palmtop the size of a wallet, she mocks stylistic flourishes of any kind. The narrator, Alice, an employee at a massive toy company, must invent a product that’s “soft, cute, lovable, huggable, dinky, sweet, tiny, adorable, baby, fragile.” Disgusted, she brainstorms while repeating things like “abort abort” and “escape is the only option.”

Thomas underscores Alice’s disdain for consumer culture by telling the kind of story that’s most easily sold: a mass-paperback-style mystery, involving secret codes and a treasure chest. Through long flashbacks, Alice details the history of a 400-year-old prize, buried by a pirate. She and her grandfather, a famous cryptologist, do prime factorizations in order to crack the formula and uncover the jewels. Her passion for numbers—she explains all the math manipulations like a school
teacher—far exceeds her interest in getting rich.

Although Thomas describes herself as “the kind of woman who should not be on the loose in the publishing industry,” her characters (described as “Geek Cool,” “Ugly Beautiful”) are politically correct to the point of silliness. A couple days into her company retreat and Alice, calmed by an ample supply of marijuana, is an anti-capitalist vegan who believes in freedom for all creatures who can operate a console (“fucking hell, I can’t eat an animal that can play videogames”). She and her colleagues compare corporate-sponsored trends to fascism, yet still enjoy all the new products and fads. They’re cool in an agoraphobic, alienated, “cutesy-cartoon” kind of way, unable to reconcile a desire to “CHANGE THE WORLD” (as Alice puts it) with their veiled enthusiasm for what it already offers.