Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey
Updated: Apr 19
‘conversation is flirtation. Tease out enough rope and the listener, she’ll hang on your every word. Though it’s true: usually I am the one left hanging.’
In Miranda Popkey’s smart, self-scrutinising debut, the narrator (who, we understand, bears more than a passing resemblance to the author), excavates the self through ten interactions across two decades. Moving from Italy to Ann Arbor, Los Angeles to Fresno, and roaming across desire, marriage, motherhood, storytelling, art and addiction with a variety of interlocutors – mother, lover, employer, friends – these conversations provide a snapshot of the narrator’s life at certain moments. In the acknowledgements, Popkey confesses: ‘A writer shoves into her first novel more or less everything she has ever thought, seen, read, loved, hated, experienced … I have done this, good or bad.’
This allusive, introspective work of autofiction concludes with ‘Works (Not) Cited and ‘Works Cited’ sections cataloguing the author’s influences – from books and films to songs and e-newsletters. Worth plundering for cultural spoils, these lists confirm the influence of authors such as Rachel Cusk (to whose novels Outline and Transit this book owes the clearest debt), Sheila Heti, Miranda July and Heidi Julavits – who have all expanded the possibilities of the novel form and challenged the boundaries between fiction and memoir, author and narrator.
This explicit intertextuality in no way detracts from the novel’s freshness; instead, the title Topics of Conversation represents an engagement with conversations unfolding both within and beyond the pages of the book – conversations with the artists who have shaped the author’s consciousness. Popkey writes with such wit and agility that her narrator’s reflections are a pleasure to read – shifting, complex, rewarding in their playful elegance:
‘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.’
She enjoys semantic acrobatics – and mostly pulls them off to perfection, only occasionally overreaching and prioritising dexterity over truth. It isn't everyone’s cup of tea, but for some these thought processes will provoke jolts of recognition, certain sentences beg to be underlined. At once sharp and discursive, Popkey's prose dances – deceives, contradicts, interrogates, corrects: ‘Another cliche: my husband was having an affair. No, not another cliche, a lie. Actually I cheated.’
Rejecting marital security, the narrator leaves John, who is ‘everything a liberated woman is supposed to want’; abandons her PhD; has a son fathered by an anonymous lover; and raises him in a dead-end California town about which she’d held romantic delusions. When a happy-go-lucky friend’s life finally seems as messed up as her own, the narrator’s response is schadenfreude: ‘Her story was still the better story, but finally, thank god, she was miserable in it.' One of the novel’s least convincing scenes features a group of four women brought together by single-motherhood. They share their life stories, but these reveal the distances between them. The narrator is more detached than ever, obsessing over her intense dislike for one woman while imagining a heightened complicity with another. In this scene, the microscopic observation seems gratuitously critical, cruel rather than clever – uncharitable, a word the narrator uses herself.
One of the most skilful chapters describes the narrator watching a YouTube video of an interview with a woman whose ex-husband was friends with Norman Mailer. She recalls the party where Mailer stabbed his wife Adele Morales, and the way his acolytes enabled, even encouraged his macho drunken aggression. Her account is fascinating, but the comments are angry, impatient: who is this woman and why does she have a platform? The interview is described in spellbinding detail, as the narrator mirrors the subject’s bourbon-drinking with her own gin and tonics.
Refreshingly, although booze courses through the veins of this novel, it is no straightforward addiction narrative. Instead, the pleasures of drink are present alongside its destructive qualities; it even inspires elegiac lyricism: ‘sky the colour of scotch; bark the syrup-brown of bourbon; cheeks the raw-pink of summer’s first rosé’. Rather than lingering on a tortuous road to sobriety, the narrator briefly mentions that she’s quit, and vividly evokes alcohol’s capacity to amplify experience and accelerate intimacy.
The novel explores the questions: why do we build lives, only to destroy them? Why do we fight for what we want, only to yearn for something else? Why are our choices governed by our imaginations? And how can we trust desire if it’s shaped by corrupt narratives such as porn? Little wonder desire – a close relation of disgust – is capricious and elusive for someone who grew up absorbing ‘a certain cultural consensus about what women wanted and how men should go about giving it to them’.
Invigorating and inventive, Topics of Conversation exhibits a piercing intelligence. Miranda Popkey is writing into a tradition of female autofiction that has been so visible in recent years as to be ripe for parody. It would be easy to eye-roll, and the novel inevitably covers some familiar ground. However, there is much here that’s original and thoughtful – the wry humour; the insights into the fragility of desire; the pleasure of language and its expert deployment. It is a feat of narrative and ideas, and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.
‘To live you must make sense of it, and that’s what narrative’s for … Mostly it's harmless. Though perhaps sometimes you find yourself doing things because you think the narrative arc calls for it, or because you’ve grown bored with your own plot’.
Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey was published by Serpent’s Tail in January 2020.