Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, Topics of Conversation, is filled with challenging, honest, brilliant writing. Her novel resembles variations on a life’s themes, snapshots of a life over about a fifteen-year period starting from college. It lacks a traditional plot. Its nine chapters, which are titled by location and arranged chronologically from Italy (2000) to Los Angeles (2017), provide ideas, possibilities, actions, and language that provoke conversations. Her novel is a collection of riffs on topics that have been moulded into “better stories.” It has elements of autofiction, although the meaning of that slippery phrase eludes me.
Popkey’s unnamed protagonist tastes a myriad of attractions: an older, foreign woman; older male authority figures like professors; primal devouring attractions; strangers in hotel rooms. She delves deeply into the various power dynamics between such relationships and couplings.
Popkey is pulling back the curtain to elucidate the “origin story” of her character who is clearly a surrogate for herself. She’s imbuing the story of this life with “explanatory power.” Popkey’s narrator/protagonist is deliberately and openly manipulative, bragging about improving her story and reshaping it until the most appropriate narrative emerges:
“Truth didn’t help. Everything that had ever happened could never be integrated into something coherent. The trick was picking the right moments. The trick was knowing when to lie.”
Some of Popkey’s most powerful writing is found in “San Francisco, 2012” whose 25 pages are worth the price of the entire novel. She confronts the intersection of power and attraction when her narrator picks up a man in hotel bar. Back in his room, their playful banter disintegrates; she initiates a role play that careens off script; she loses control; the tension and risk are palpable. Here’s a terse, tasty, teaser from the middle of three or four pages of disturbing prose:
“Some girls don’t know what they want. And then you have to tie their wrists up real tight even before you take your belt off, even though she should know. . . you’d never use the buckle end. Sometimes, how she’s moving against the knot you used on her wrist, you change your mind, you leave the belt on the floor. . . . With some girls, you’re not even hitting her yet, and all of a sudden, just totally out of the blue, she starts looking scared. She starts saying, What are you doing, starts saying, Hold on a minute, starts saying, Wait I don’t know about this, and so then you do have to hit her”— and here he slapped me— “not hard”— no, not hard, a sting, brief, and then the pleasure of the sting’s absence— “just to get her to shut up.”
I kept asking myself where her imagination ended and the memories of her experience began. Where are the lies? What part was burnished or enhanced? And what exactly happened in the encounter?
In another startling chapter, “Los Angeles, 2012,” the narrator watches on YouTube an interview outtake with a witness to the infamous night in 1960 when Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Her exegesis deconstructs how such an event would be covered in today’s media and environment and is juxtaposed deftly with her own experience in a hotel room. It’s a startling piece of commentary that wouldn’t quite belong in a more traditional novel.
Popkey’s novel explodes with fresh, stark, belligerent language. Here she is describing the contents of her drink container:
“A thermos of coffee and bourbon. Maybe one-third bourbon, two-thirds coffee. Maybe one-third coffee, two-thirds bourbon. These details are hard to remember.”
Her snarky tone masquerades a drinking problem. She shifts gears and explains how memory can be exploited:
“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. Am I, just now, more interested in appearing openly louche (look at me lapping at luxury) or secretly wounded? How close to the surface is my pain? Or, rather, how close to the surface do I want my pain to appear to be?”
As I digest her ideas and their implications, this passage transforms into a soliloquy on female pain and the difficulty of calm navigation between banality and hysteria:
“How enamored am I of the clichés of female pain? . . . Do I wish to make my distress visible and, therefore, hysterical? Or do I wish to suffer in silence? How often do I clean my home? How many loaves of bread do I bake, on average, every week?”
Her essayistic style shifts her narrative focus and strengthen her argument.
In another illuminating passage, Popkey’s narrator again mocks the trope of the unreliable narrator. She brazenly makes a statement, revises it, and admits that she’s lying and consciously shaping her narrative:
“I met Laura in graduate school, where I also met my husband. They were dating when I met them, Laura and my husband. My ex-husband. That’s not true. I did meet both Laura and my ex-husband in graduate school, but they weren’t dating. That would be a better story. I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so often boring.”
I’m also a sucker for a well-crafted aphorism:
“I have been, in my life, just close enough to wealth to touch the rotting lace of its hem. Another way to put this: my family has been, still is, richer than most.”
“When we thought about sex we thought mostly about ways to defend against what we didn’t want instead of ways to pursue what we did.”
“I do tend to think I’m the smartest person in every room and it doesn’t help that lately I have been.”
Any Cop?: Another line resonated throughout Topics of Conversation: “What I’m saying is that my life, like the lives of most people, lacks an original story. I mean one with any explanatory power.” I don’t know how closely this rather humble brag mirrors her own life. But I do know that Miranda Popkey’s writing brilliantly compensates for any shortcomings. I will be eagerly anticipating reading her work in the future.