We Need to Talk

Topics of Conversation BY Miranda Popkey. New York: Knopf. 224 pages. $24.

The cover of Topics of Conversation

Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is a novel about the things women (largely women of a certain class) talk about, when alone with each other, when with men, when in the world, and privately to themselves. Stories about ourselves—and how we tell them—are the core of this twisty, prickly, sometimes brilliant debut. Wit is never in short supply here; the narrator is a perceptive observer of her own habit of falling into, and her ultimate inability to accept, a series of stock roles: bright but naive graduate student; professor’s wife; suburban mother; clever daughter; single parent. The fact that she drinks too much is an element of her persona that feels a bit too stock itself.

Topics of Conversation is a series of vignettes—each recounting a single conversation—spanning almost twenty years of the unnamed narrator’s life. The result is less a unified novel in the realist mode than a richly kaleidoscopic meditation on female identity as it evolves over time. If I hadn’t read the book’s jacket copy I might not have known that this was a single narrator, so different does she sometimes seem from chapter to chapter. This near disconnect appears to be intentional: With its shifts in time and tone, Topics of Conversation tells a story of misplaced promise and self-abasement. It isn’t a novel of event so much as a novel of reflection, and one feels the presence of predecessors such as Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

“If every event which occurred could be given a name,” John Berger wrote, “there would be no need for stories.” Popkey is concerned not only with how hard it is to name the events in our lives but also with how easy it is to misname them. The novel opens with an epigraph from Sylvia Plath’s diaries: “How to recognize a story? There is so much experience but the real outcome tyrannizes over it.” Similarly, Popkey’s narrator tells us at the outset: “I, at twenty-one, did not, had not yet settled on the governing narrative of my life. Had not yet realized the folly of governing narratives.” Over the course of the book, that folly is demonstrated over and over, sometimes with a little too much effort. Then again, the effort feels appropriate to the subject matter: The problem with those narratives for a bright young woman, after all, is how claustrophobic, deforming, and one-dimensional they are.

Liz Craft, Little Lips 4, 2015, glazed ceramic, epoxy, 11 × 6 × 2". Courtesy the artist and Jenny’s, Los Angeles
Liz Craft, Little Lips 4, 2015, glazed ceramic, epoxy, 11 × 6 × 2". Courtesy the artist and Jenny’s, Los Angeles

When we first meet the narrator, she is “twenty-one and daffy with sensation,” going “straight from a major in English to a graduate program for study of same.” Her story unfolds, like life, in fits and starts, roving back and forth in time with disconcerting precision. Each little wrinkle in time tends to thwart assumptions the reader might have made. As the narrator gets older, her ambitions are largely abandoned: She marries a fellow grad student named John and follows him from professorship to professorship, rather than finishing her own Ph.D. and becoming a professor herself. The conversations in which we learn all this are deftly dramatized, ranging from casual banter to deeply troubling confessions that explore the residue of sexual trauma and dissociative female submissiveness. Popkey is sharp on the way young women can alternate between brash self-aggrandizing and deep self-loathing. She is also particularly good at evoking how women judge, and how they present themselves to be judged. In an early section, when the narrator is still young, she meets a friend at the show of a Swedish video artist who makes work about female humiliation, and the two proceed to perform for each other with baroque cruelty, trying to show who has the most politically astute reading of the art. At one point the narrator retorts: “And presumably you know that saying the words existing power structures doesn’t mean you’re not part of the problem?”

The narrator here is in some ways a recessive figure; we learn about her not from what she says so much as through her acts of listening. (In this sense, the novel is heavily—too heavily—influenced by Cusk’s recent novel trilogy.) The stories she hears are dark: There is an abusive boss, a college student who is raped by her boyfriend while she’s passed out. After the narrator’s divorce, she finds herself part of a single-moms group where—at her urging—the mothers trade stories about “how they got here.” Her own story is murky, and for good reason, given how many conflicting and limiting personal and cultural narratives she has absorbed. The narrator has learned to favor a less reductive approach. No wonder the prose is so circuitous, erupting, at moments, into wry erudition.

This narrator is, after all, keenly interested in codes of power and in the moments when social masks come off. She is fascinated by the currents of appetite that lie beneath our surface behavior. (This is one reason conversation, with its unrehearsed revelations and unpredictable turns, is a key mode for the book.) In the first chapter, the narrator is on vacation with a friend from college—babysitting her friend’s siblings. Most of the chapter is devoted to a long story told by the mother, an attractive, wealthy forty-four-year-old named Artemisia. It concerns a relationship she had with an older professor when she was in college; it is an account of sexual power, a story of a young woman losing interest in the older man precisely at the moment she realizes that—contrary to most of the governing narratives of our time—she, and not he, holds the actual power. The narrator listens in fascination; she is, as she herself puts it, “an uncertain girl, weak of will and ego, and I wanted Artemisia and Pablo to like me, Artemisia in particular.” The writing here is excellent: fizzy and alive with intimations of what might lie ahead for this sensitive, observant character.

But sometimes the author’s ambition to diagnose the underlying truth of a situation pushes the story into complexities that devolve into confusion. As she listens to the older woman, the narrator tells us, “I was coveting her sleeveless shifts, coveting the stern knot into which she’d tied her long hair, streaked with gray, the few frizzed locks that had escaped the grip of her elastic, it did not then occur to me that I might also be coveting the body beneath and below.” But it turns out that what is coveted most is the story the body is telling. As the narrator puts it:

Now I know that I am never more covetous than when someone tells me a story, a secret, the sharing of a confidence stoking in me the hunger for intimacy of a more proximate kind. I’m trying to say that Artemisia’s mouth was moving. That if I had been capable, in that moment, of true honesty, I would have said that what I most wanted to do was stop it with my own. I’m trying also to say that this desire need not be, was not in this case, sexual. . . . Artemisia had, in telling me her story, given me something of herself. My desire to kiss her was a desire to thank her.

Popkey packs so much in here that it’s hard to tell how much control she has over her material, or even what she means: What begins as a look at the erotics of female covetousness turns into an examination of the erotics of gratitude.

Thematically, Popkey is interested in and perceptive about self-loathing, cruelty, erotic shame, ugliness. And yet something about all this feels a little bit safe, in contrast to, say, a writer like Mary Gaitskill, whose characters’ inner lives tend to be in flux. For stretches the style hardens into overworked mannerism, melting into animated prose periodically, then stiffening back up. What had felt marvelously alive and at risk—and vulnerable—in the first chapter started to feel overdetermined, crossing over into the kind of performance that the narrator is supposedly trying to interrogate.

But: Popkey is a talent, and when she is at her best it is hard to shake what you’ve read. There is a stunning section about watching an outtake of a documentary on YouTube in which the director talks with a woman who attended the party at which Norman Mailer stabbed his wife Adele. The director is trying to “focus” the woman’s speech—by cutting it off—but the woman, who is older now, speaks with a total indifference to his desires, and fully inhabits her own desire to say what she wants to say. It’s a masterful scene, one that uses intricately observed detail to develop a devastatingly broad appraisal of just how disposable women were (and perhaps remain) in liberal artistic circles. In the video, the storyteller describes walking home with her boyfriend after watching Adele get carried out of the building, covered in blood. Because her high heels start blistering her feet, she takes them off and uses her elbow-length gloves as makeshift shoes; the white gloves are grimy by the end of the walk, an image that serves as the perfect objective correlative for her disgust at her boyfriend’s lack of curiosity about what happened to Adele. (The story—the story—is that she fell on some glass.) Later, the woman tells the interviewer, she married this boyfriend.

But for all its insight and efforts to evade the stories imposed on women, Popkey’s novel ends on a surprisingly constrictive note. The narrator winds up entrenched in a number of roles—single mother, working as a legal secretary, in recovery for alcoholism. She hopes her son will have more than she did. “What I care about—what I try to care about—now. A sense of humor. Kindness, whatever that is. Knowing who the good teachers are, knowing how to get my kid into their classes.” Interestingly, she says this not to another woman but to herself.

Topics of Conversation is best read not as a portrait of a woman who finds an origin story, or a self-determined destination. Rather, it is a kind of essay on the intense pleasures and charged possibilities of talk—of conversation as performance and a means of unintended intimacy. Even when the women here seem stuck in someone else’s story, when they talk with each other, a wealth of complex subterranean personhood can suddenly break through, like a dolphin’s back flashing in the waves. “There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current,” Popkey writes, and the best pages here contain that energy.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of The Long Goodbye (Riverhead, 2011) and the editor of the Yale Review.