‘Topics of Conversation’ Is a Timely Look at Sex and Power

Imagine you’re at some over-the-top, Gatsby-like soiree, cocktail in hand, attentively listening as a stranger chronicles the blemished lives of misunderstood women. You are captivated by the first-hand account of affairs, humility, loneliness and desire. Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is exactly that party, with characters that air the most intimate of laundry.

Popkey’s primary narrator is nameless but identifiable. Although she is our storyteller, it is far from just her story. Our guide remains unnamed throughout the novel, only inserting herself into the narrative long enough to evoke eroticism and a “coming of age” realization. The novel is chronological, divided by location and year, each woman with their own story to tell. An older lady confesses of forbidden love and role reversal.  Another recounts head games with a fiancée while browsing an art gallery. An upscale apartment is home to tales of a virgin, sexual assault and jealousy. A swim turns into a question of abandonment. What is most curious is the way Popkey portrays the storyteller primarily as a stranger while simultaneously revealing her feelings. Our only way in is through inner monologue, filled with various fantasies and privately asserted opinions.

While the ambiguous nature of the storyteller directs attention to the other narrators, her lack of presence yields confusion. In several entries other characters engage the storyteller, making it difficult to accept her presence in the story. We don’t know if we are in the play or part of the audience. The lengthy conversations are rich in detail and Popkey’s use of imagery is immaculate. Ultimately though, we are left misplaced.

Despite the stream of consciousness that makes up the book, Popkey manages to give clues as to the storyteller’s personality. The storyteller describes Artemisia, the narrator in “Italy, 2000,” as a woman “sequestered in a domestic plot…” and “trapped, yes, but in a hedge maze of her own design.” These revelations make it easy to dislike our storyteller, not only for the very sin of gossip, but for the judgmental way she portrays the main character. In these stories, each woman is a conglomerate of good and evil, of triumph and mistake. In this way, Popkey creates a connection between other narrators and the reader, leaving the storyteller as a bystander looking on with an occasional condemnation or fantasy monologue.

Topics of Conversation is a high school reunion that reminisces. Think Little Women but without Jo’s own account of her life. Popkey has been compared to predecessors of desire and self-loathing such as Jenny Offill, Lydia Davis and Sally Rooney. Popkey’s novel is more of a conversation in an attempt at self-discovery, with an homage to David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and its first-hand storytelling style of the most scandalous and desirable confessions.

FICTION
Topics of Conversation
By Miranda Popkey
Knopf
Published January 7, 2020