Book Review: Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

Provocative as in to provoke, as in to provoke interest. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: conversation is flirtation.

Miranda Popkey, Topics of Conversation

I greatly enjoyed Topics of Conversation, Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, although I toiled through the first seventy pages or so and I started writing a very different review than what this one turned out to be. I had heard that the book was a provocative read, and I was ready to immediately like it. However, like conversations, which can often have awkward beginnings, the promised snark and sexiness took a while to develop. Topics of Conversation is not an instant gratification read to be sure – the reader will need to spend some time with this one.

In a series of vignettes, an unnamed female protagonist offers glimpses into discrete periods of her life from college and graduate school, to marriage, divorce, and motherhood. The chapters center around conversations the protagonist has with women she knows as she attempts to reconcile female desire, her dislike of decision-making, her antipathy toward marriage, and the all-encompassing-ness of motherhood with societal expectations and norms regarding the same. The narrator’s thought processes are interpolated into these conversations, making the narrative difficult to follow at times, but faithfully representing how we experience internal dialogue during actual conversations.

I’m not, she said, disturbing you? And when I said no she asked what I was writing and I said, A letter to my boyfriend, and then, Or, not my boyfriend, we broke up, before the summer. This was not quite accurate. I’m going to graduate school, I added. He didn’t want to follow you? Artemisia asked. I laughed and she frowned and I said, quickly, It’s just that I’m young and he’s got a job in New York and it didn’t, a helpless hand gesture, come up. If we’d been, and here I paused because I hadn’t yet lied outright and didn’t want to, didn’t want to lie to her, and yet explaining the situation also seemed impossible, but then Artemisia smiled and I stopped talking, relieved. Ready, she said. You were going to say, If we’d been ready. Ready to get married, yes? This was not what I had been going to say. Of course it was true that I wasn’t ready to get married, but this wasn’t the problem, the problem was that my boyfriend, who was also my former professor, already was.

Miranda Popkey, Topics of Conversation

At first, I thought that I didn’t care for Popkey’s writing style – it is very stream-of-consciousness and rather jumpy, like you’re listening in on a real conversation (hmmm). I’ve struggled to get into some authors’ writing styles before, and this time it took me longer than usual, but I think it had more to do with the editing than the writing itself. I found myself mentally creating new paragraphs or changing punctuation in order to make the writing flow better, which is not something I generally like to do while trying to enjoy a book. It was distracting.

About one-third of the way through the novel I stopped reading for about a week. With me, that’s usually not a good sign. But I wanted to finish, so I did some research on Popkey and read some of her other writing. Reading some of her extensive non-fiction pieces, I got a better feel for her writing style and voice. Her book and play reviews are insightful and I can see that her reflections on the work of others greatly influenced Topics of Conversation

There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current. Sometimes this current is so hot it all but boils and other times it’s barely lukewarm, hardly noticeable, but always the current is present, if only you plunge your hands just an inch or two farther down in the water. This is regardless of the gender of the people involved, of their sexual orientations. This is the natural outcome of disclosure, for to disclose is to reveal, to bring out into the open what was previously hidden. And that unwrapping, that denuding, is always, inevitably sensual. Nothing binds two people like sharing a secret. 

Miranda Popkey, Topics of Conversation

After my reading hiatus I picked up Topics of Conversation again. Now the narrative kept me turning the pages until well past midnight. Perhaps it was that the writing seemed to flow better after the first few chapters, or I had just finally adjusted to the style. Besides the better overall flow of the writing, the narrative itself became more interesting, more focused, and there was more continuity between chapters.

In a recent interview with Longreads, Popkey described how initially she was working on short stories during her MFA. After a suggestion from a visiting professor, she decided to turn the stories into a novel, what would become Topics of Conversation. I think this short-stories-beginning is evident, particularly in the first several chapters. It’s also telling how Popkey talks about the way in which she crafted the first chapters versus the later ones:

“It’s funny, the first few stories, I wrote them and it didn’t feel like I was making anything up. But especially the later ones I was like ‘Okay, I need another story. I need another conversation. How do I maneuver my character into an encounter with someone who’s in some way different from the people she’s had conversations with before? How can the conversation she has be illuminating in a way that conversations previous have not been?’”

Popkey continued: “I know that is basically what writing is, but it felt wrong! The bits that I wrote latest, to me they’re so clearly serving a purpose. There are parts of the book that feel pure because I didn’t think about them when I was writing them, and then there are parts that are me as a writer working really hard to get things to happen, and because I can see myself behind the scenes doing all the work, it just is so sweaty.”

The chapters which Popkey said she had to work the hardest at are the chapters that I enjoyed the most. As a writer myself, I find this endlessly fascinating – how other writers “do it” – and I’ve had very similar experiences with my own fiction. Sometimes it just flows out of you nearly fully formed, other times you’re wrenching it out with a pair of heavy-duty pliers and then hammering at it with a pick-ax – getting sweaty.

“The bottom of the deep end was not tile or plastic or ceramic or stone. Instead it was a video screen.” Kelly Hydrick, digital illustration

Just as the prose changes, the protagonist also transforms subtly throughout the novel, from young, impressionable college girl to a jaded, but more self-aware woman. Although, in the novel, just as in life, change doesn’t equal happiness, doesn’t equal closure, doesn’t equal understanding. There is an absolutely enlightening, yet cringe-worthy, conversation she has with other single mothers where she wrongly assumes certain things and subsequently gets her ass handed to her. She is just as uncertain about a lot of things at the end of the book as in the beginning. The difference though, is she has grown into this uncertainty, and we as readers have come through her interactions and thoughts with her to arrive at a place where she’s mostly ok with herself and her life.

Through the eyes of one woman, Topics of Conversation examines what it can mean to be socialized as female in today’s society. In a 2018 review of Mary Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever, Popkey wrote of Robison that “she was only trying to faithfully represent the chaos that is lived experience.” I think much the same can be said of Popkey’s novel which depicts the disorder of everyday thoughts and conversations. Popkey’s ability to write this chaos is evidence of her talent, and I look forward to seeing what she writes in the future.

Topics of Conversation
by Miranda Popkey

215 pages

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