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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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Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson

She would walk along that basement corridor for another twenty-six years, each day cut and folded by the belief that just beyond the museum’s worn paths and daily rituals, there lies the possibility of something wholly unimaginable.

Christine Coulson, Metropolitan Stories

In Metropolitan Stories, Christine Coulson’s debut novel, the mighty and the miniscule denizens of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art rub shoulders with (or tiptoe past) one another in this collection of vividly realized stories. Coulson is a veteran museum employee and began her career at The Met as a summer intern in 1991. She spent over twenty-five years working in various museum departments until 2019 when she left the museum to write full-time. Metropolitan Stories is the happy result of this shift. Magical realism permeates Coulson’s tale that details an earnest love affair with art and the people who care for it.

Because we did not realize that we needed to be rescued by marble and silk, or canvas and oil paint, or charcoal upon a page, pushing beyond gilded frames and glass cases to reach out and do with us what they will…

Christine Coulson, Metropolitan Stories

In Metropolitan Stories, employees of the museum, from the lowly organizer of the museum shop bags up to the museum director, inhabit the galleries and back-rooms, in service to the objects housed there. As they go about their jobs, sooner or later, they begin to understand the power and magic of the art. They realize that the art knows more, has already lived, that the “objects were there, saw the whole thing, right in front of them.” With “their own dramas, with their delicate fears, their skyscraper egos, and their cracked and broken hearts” the human characters in Coulson’s stories are fleeting foils to the permanence of the art itself.  

The distinction between fantasy and reality blurs as artworks literally come alive, a seemingly commonplace occurrence. In a hilarious casting call, hundreds of different renditions of Muses from the museum’s collection audition for the role of “Muse” to the museum director. Later, a marble Adam “dreamt about bending his other knee or running his fingers through his hair. He imagined stretching the cavern of his mouth around the apple he held and hearing its hard crunch.” The various stories are linked by the common setting of The Met which becomes a cavernous, magical behemoth, a complicated character in its own right, full of hidden chambers and doorways to other worlds. The author’s tongue-in-cheek humor shines through in stories as disparate as two guards caught in flagrante delicto in a janitor’s closet to the musings of a fauteuil à la reine who wishes there was a support group for old chairs. 

Art lovers will probably enjoy the anthropomorphizing of various works, and anyone who has ever visited The Met will recognize some of its most famous installations (the Temple of Dendur features in several of the stories). Fans of magical realism (think Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, and classics from Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, and Salman Rushdie) will appreciate Coulson’s contribution to the genre.

All-in-all Metropolitan Stories was a fast, fun read with quick flashes of profound insight into the human condition. Art becomes comedian, hero, refuge, and savior, sometimes all at the same time. Mostly, the art endures. The art is “the proof, sticky but silent, hanging on that wall, standing on that pedestal.” Proof of the existence of other people that created, gave, played with, or just gazed at the art. Proof of a line of human connection, experience, and thought more powerful than death. In the end, the art is “proof that anyone was ever there at all.”

Metropolitan Stories
by Christine Coulson

249 pages