The topics that anchor Miranda Popkey’s debut novel Topics of Conversation are in fact the ones generally avoided in conversation. They include envy between friends, affairs and their attendant lies, neglectful mothers, accidental pregnancies, alcoholism, rape (and perhaps most unspeakable now, the rape fantasy), and the hard truth that “the story of one’s life” is not self-evident, but constructed. Each chapter, identified by location and year, spanning the years 2000 through 2017, weaves in both accounts by the unnamed narrator of an intimate event in her adult life and similar revelations made by others, via dialogue and monologues. These key moments of disclosure refract and reflect each other: a woman’s regretful account of the party where Norman Mailer stabbed his wife (viewed by the narrator on YouTube), the narrator’s mother telling of an affair she had with her Freudian psychoanalyst, and a middle-aged woman’s sudden realization of her attraction to women.
The protagonist’s trajectory is a downward spiral, and this elliptical way of telling it—having others’ stories and dramatic actions stand in or comment on her own life—is characteristic of her ambivalence towards her story. There’s an uncertainty about how much space she wants to take up, how far she will go in the telling. “How close to the surface is my pain?” she asks. “Or, rather, how close to the surface do I want my pain to appear to be? How enamored am I of the clichés of female pain?” The narrator insists throughout on the erotic nature of disclosure: the power the teller hands over to the listener. She is clever, used to being clever, and afraid of what she can’t see about herself.
Popkey is careful to ground all of the talk and rumination in time and space: friends discuss a divorce while hiking in L.A.’s Griffith Park, single mothers open a bottle of wine in an apartment in Fresno. In one scene, the narrator and her friend discuss the end of a relationship while viewing an exhibit by a Swedish video artist. The ingenious descriptions of the art offer wry subtext and flashes of humor amid the troubled talk. In one video, the artist “serves dinner—bowls of soapy water; a salad of unwashed weeds; uncooked spaghetti; halved, covered in motor oil—to a family of blow-up sex dolls. She goes into another room and retrieves the sword. With the sword she decapitates each sex doll. Then she sits at the table and begins eating dirt-covered weeds.” Popkey has an eye for gesture, and a carefully documented choreography of pauses and gestures interrupts and enlivens the conversations and monologues, as in moments like, “Sandra’s lips looked like they had wrapped themselves around an especially sour slice of lemon. I think she was trying to smile,” or, “He had been, Artemisia exhaled smoke once more, ground her cigarette into the base of the glass ashtray. As I said he had been a kind of father to me.”
While a novel filled with the stories women will only tell in an intimate moment could bring to mind feminist consciousness-raising or its 21st-century descendant, the personal essay, with its bloggy, conversational voice, this narrator does not aim to draw other women near. Instead she repels any sympathy that might be born of her confessions; the tone recalls the iciest moments of an Ottessa Moshfegh character. All of her friendships are lapsed, any help accepted is resented. Bitterly self-aware, she insists that she is unsentimental, “repulsed by tenderness,” the first to admit her own flaws. Most of all, she is a woman who wants to be simultaneously seen and not seen.
She appears to be trying on a hard-boiled persona for size, as there are occasional funny moments when the masks slips. “Hard-boiled” is traditionally a man’s costume, and without a trail of heart-broken women as proof of worthiness, this drag performance is thus inevitably filled with uncomfortable moments. Equipped with a nearly completed PhD in English, the narrator is hip to this double standard. When describing her feelings about the woman artist’s museum exhibit, she deliberates, “The woman as object is less vulgar than the woman as subject. The woman as object is art and the man who objectifies her an artist. The woman as subject, well. Just a narcissistic bitch, isn’t she? Not that I believe this. Not that I do not believe this.”
An expansive knowledge of gender dynamics has not been, nor is enough, for her to untangle her knotted and contradictory desires: for subjugation and for control, for conventional success and for freedom from obligation, for example. Indeed, her self-awareness seems to be her greatest burden. She will allow for one possible version of a story over another; she ventures out in one direction and then walks it back:
These details are hard to remember. Also I may be exaggerating them. Also I may be minimizing them. The difference between the two—for when a memory is retold, its particulars, inevitably, are brightened or muted depending on the arc of the story of which it is a part—a question of, determined by, desire.
For all of the disclosures, one is left with the feeling that she has more to tell, or that perhaps the evolving language of gender and power dynamics has not yet furnished the right language for her particular story yet. Popkey seems to offer a clue to what’s left unspoken in an addendum at the end of the book, a list of “works not cited”: the novels, films, podcasts, TV episodes and email newsletters that influenced and fed into the writing of the novel. It’s a generous admission, and an invitation to further open up the timely themes of sex and power, identity and motherhood, and women’s art-making voiced in the book.
Topics of Conversation
By Miranda Popkey
Alfred A. Knopf
Published January 7, 2020
Megin Jiménez is the author of Mongrel Tongue (1913 Press), a collection of prose poems and hybrid texts. Her work has appeared in Barrow Street, Denver Quarterly, Barrelhouse, Mantis, Redivider and other journals. She teaches at the International Writers’ Collective and works as a translator. Find more of her work at meginjimenez.com.