Book Review: Miranda Popkey’s “Topics of Conversation” — A Bemused Candor

By Drew Hart

What you will be impressed by is the strength of the interior thinking, the detailing of the voices sorting out their confusion.

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey. Knopf, 205 pp.

Into a new decade we go — ta da! Note that the New York literary community is prepared: a most anticipated debut novel lands with momentum, along with backing from well-established writing talents. Miranda Popkey has appeared in media before, with major magazine credits behind her, but now she has taken the big leap into fiction. It’s interesting that Popkey has been quoted as saying that she wasn’t sure she knew how to write a novel. Well is there an answer for that anyway?

What goes on here, in a book the physical size of a birding field guide, is an attempt to listen to women’s voices — those of this new century — moderated by a nameless narrator who recounts a collection of stories told by them, and who adds more than a few about herself. She is watching things in life develop as she grows up, beginning in 2000, when she’s an undergraduate in a summer job as an au pair in Italy, hearing about a mother employer’s failed past marriage, meanwhile noticing a sexual charge between them. A bit later, she’s in an advanced English program in Ann Arbor, learning the story of a rape of a virgin coed by an older graduate student. Then she’s in the Bay Area, in a marriage of her own that she finds lackluster, leaving her house one day and going out to have an intense hookup in a San Francisco hotel that has two consequences: she uses the infidelity to break up with her husband, and meanwhile finds herself pregnant. Having failed to finish her thesis, and financially stretched, she winds up in the existential haze of California’s Central Valley, where she raises her son in the company of other single mothers — all of whom have their own challenged relationship tales to share. By the end of the various accounts, we are nearly in the present day, with no clear picture of what may come next. It may be that, going forward, men are not going to play a particularly big part?

All right — here’s a male reviewer looking in on these proceedings; in the current climate between women and men, where the latter are understandably (and deservedly?) treading lightly, you wonder whether there’s much value in my point of view? Fair enough, but let’s make a few observations just in case… While there is the flavor of a rough draft to some of Topics of Conversation, this actually works in the book’s favor; uncertainty is everywhere, and so the meandering, often dislocated structure adds to its skeptical spirit. Similarly, although passages are set in various distinct locations, there’s almost no rendering of those environments, which also lends to the overall feeling of being lost. These are effective underlying qualities. But what you’ll come here for mostly, and be impressed by, is the strength of the interior thinking, the detailing of the voices sorting out their confusion. Especially compelling is our narrator’s willingness to concede doubt over women’s roles in relationships with men, something that isn’t always found in recent treatments of the sexes. Where there has been anger seen in some work in this vein during the past decade, here there is mostly a bemused candor. It draws respect, and a healthy curiosity over what lies ahead.

Popkey’s book ends with a lengthy list of credits — almost as a movie would; they include her therapists, who she stresses she “never slept with”? She also salutes influences that stretch back to the introverted fiction of Renata Adler as well as more recent practitioners of “auto-fiction” such as Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill. But there’s something less labored about her work than theirs, somehow, and even if on this outing Popkey’s vision is still in incubation, its honesty and balance may signify the beginning of a different path.

Drew Hart is from Santa Barbara, California.

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