Topics of Conversation
Knopf | January 7, 2020
In a pivotal chapter of Miranda Popkey’s debut novel Topics of Conversation, the unnamed narrator joins a group of women—some coworkers, all new mothers, all single—for an evening. The narrator sips wine and, suddenly appalled by how little she knows about these women and their lives before becoming mothers, she asks each to tell her story. Though not all of the women share—or even respond favorably—the narrator reflects on the powerful intimacy of conversations: the potential to share secrets, create identities, and bind people together. This direct musing on the nature and possibility of these discussions feels intentional—the powerful intimacy of conversations is precisely what the novel explores and enacts.
Each of the nine chapters centers on a conversation, most often one the narrator has with another woman. These chapters follow the narrator over almost twenty years, as she works on a PhD in English literature, then abandons the program, moves from Ann Arbor to California, marries and divorces her husband, and becomes a mother. But Popkey’s narrative isn’t sweeping; instead, these deeply intimate conversations and the narrator’s framing allow the reader glimpses into moments—big and small—as she defines, revises, and questions her story.
The opening chapter takes place in 2000, while the narrator is on summer break and visiting a friend in Italy. There, the young narrator talks with Artemisia, her friend’s mother, an Argentinian psychoanalyst; the woman shares the story of her abusive first marriage and her refusal to compromise her autonomy or her intellectual pursuits. The narrator is captivated by the story, but is more taken with Artemisia. After considering kissing the older woman, the narrator reasons that the appeal is not strictly sexual, but an intense, intimate connection:
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. Not in the way that the term is commonly understood. Artemisia had, in telling me her story, given me something of herself. My desire to kiss her was a desire to thank her, was a desire to give her something of myself, was a desire to become her, the imagined gesture equal parts grateful, generous, acquisitive.
This style of reasoning is common for the narrator. While the conversations throughout the book are largely casual confessionals, the narrator builds upon these in her telling, adding layers to statements by including frameworks in parentheticals and proposing background motives or underlying meanings. Common, too, is a desire for an equal exchange, the understanding that secrets form bonds. This shapes the conversations that the narrator has throughout the book, and, even more, it shapes the narrator’s understanding of her own story. In this scene with Artemisia, as well as the later exchanges with fellow mothers and in other chapters, the narrator asks probing, personal questions to start the conversation or move it forward, to forge a bond or create one. By asking these questions, and valuing equal exchanges too, the narrator decides which secrets and desires that she is willing to share—and how she’ll shape the narrative of her own story.
Later, after the narrator has talked with these women and others, and after she has married and divorced her husband, she reflects on the problem with her life, her story at the moment:
The problem wasn’t thinking of myself as the protagonist of a narrative it was just that I hadn’t figured out the right narrative yet. I just needed one that looked less like a bell curve, and me on the downward slope, and more like a, like a tangent, a tangent to a vertical. A vertical line meant x equaled a constant, I remembered that. Yes, me and the kid, my son, zooming up the y, bigger and better things in the future for both of us. I poured myself another glass of wine. Truth didn’t help. Everything that had ever happened could never be integrated into something coherent. The trick was picking the right moments.
Her elliptical narration here strays from the typically discerning eye and analytic tone, but she lands on an insightful note: picking the right moments is key. In this novel, Popkey selects moments that are charged, but not ones that are obvious milestones. The narrator talks with a fellow grad student about a predatory man at a party. She joins a friend who is going through a divorce at an art exhibit. She visits her mother. These moments are the “right” ones because the stakes are high in intimate conversations. The scenes are layered with dense descriptions and sharp observations, and the characters are built in these brief, vulnerable moments.
Popkey’s writing beautifully captures the casual tones of confession that bind people together in talking about their experiences and their desires. Even more, the brevity of the novel and the tight focus on these moments of exchange as a narrative structure makes it clear that conversation has another important intimate power: to shape the story of a life.