Buzzed Books #96 by Samantha Nickerson
Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation
In March 2020, I was in New York City for vacation. I found myself in a bookstore on 34th Street. After looking at every shelf (because I’m compulsive), I found Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, Topics of Conversation, on display at the storefront. I devoured it in several subway rides and a few hours in my hotel, and discovered that the pocket-sized, pastel cover is deceptive; this story is huge. Spanning seventeen years and several cities, Topics of Conversation chronicles the unnamed narrator’s journey from the time she’s a twenty-one year old English grad/nanny through her thirties, insistently creating opportunities to ruin her life. Most opportunities were erotic, and as a twenty-three-year-old recent English grad myself, the narrator fascinated me. I recommended Topics of Conversation to everyone I knew.
Topics of Conversation derives its title from its structure; most chapters are conversations between the narrator and other people, usually women. Not everything is dialogue—the narrator also spends much time in her own imagination, admitting that “I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so often boring” (57). Often the narrator zones in and out of her own conversations. Something her conversation partner says sparks a thought, and the partner fades into the background as the narrator explores her own memory. The combination of conversation and reflection is how the narrative unfolds. If the narrator’s wandering interiority seems rude, rest assured that she is aware and practices self-hatred as often as self-sabotage. Both involve a refusal of intimacy, which is the narrator’s main struggle as it contradicts the core truth of this novel: conversations are inherently intimate, but to be intimate is to be vulnerable, and replacing intimacy with eroticism masks vulnerabilities while providing the illusion of meaningful companionship without the satisfaction.
Popkey writes her narrator in a pessimistic, self-argumentative voice. The narrator often starts a sentence one way, redacts, admits to an exaggeration or an outright lie, then verbally decides to tell the truth and follows up with a continuation of the narrative. And yet, she writes the physical world in such detail that it seems impossible for her memory to be anything but perfect. For example, on a long walk to the hotel, she plans to find a man to have an affair with: “I don’t remember the hotel I decided on, honestly I don’t, but this next part I do, this next part is true. I remember walking the square, putting one foot in front of the other. My shoes were tight and the skin they exposed was swelling, red and plump, the soles of my feet slick with sweat” (77-78). Later, at the hotel bar she writes, “Inside my heels my feet were cooling but where the edges of the shoe leather cut into my flesh I could feel not blood but that clear, slick, sticky substance that precedes it” (79).
The way the narrator speaks to the reader is stylistically identical to how she speaks to other characters. The other characters all seem to have the same voice as the narrator, slight differences here and there, but the same speaking style and cadence. The effect is that all characters and conversations could be a figment of the narrator’s imagination, that details can always be exaggerated or false. It adds to the doubts about the reliability of the narrator’s memory, as does all of the alcohol she drinks.
While stylistically the voice is literate and flawless, Popkey makes a different decision regarding grammar. The narrator trusts the audience to understand that she knows the rules of grammar, but disregards them in favor of indulging her stream-of-consciousness. Often, the narrator is drunk. Popkey made sure to explicitly state that the narrator is drunk in these instances, but put in the effort to change the narrator’s clarity of thought so that the prose reflects her slurry state of mind. The effect truly feels like trying to sift through one’s own drunken thoughts..
At the start, the narrator seems to obsess over the bodies of the women she speaks with. In grad school, she admires a woman two years ahead who she identifies only as “the tenant.” At a gathering at the tenant’s apartment, the narrator sits on the floor while the tenant paces and speaks, clearly establishing the tenant as superior and herself as the inferior party within their relationship, although not unkindly. The dynamic feels like a student-teacher relationship, or like your friend’s hot older sister is telling you a story. The narrator likes to feel less powerful than others, enjoys wiser people bestowing confidence in her. To the narrator, such experiences seem validating and rewarding—but she mostly focuses on the fact that it’s erotic:
as I stared up at the smooth slope of [her] throat, at the declivity above her collarbone, a further thought entered my mind, not a thought but a wish, specifically the wish that she not get on with it, get it over with, stop talking. The wish was that she would go on talking so that I could go on staring. . . I didn’t know her that well, this tenant, this not-girl, this woman, but she was slightly older and v very beautiful and she carried herself like she was one body, a whole, not a collection o disjointed limbs, and for this reason I believed her to be very intelligent and I was in awe of her and a little bit in love with her and also I loathed her, not furiously or passionately but attentively, careful to keep the flame of—it wasn’t quite hatred; something closer to envy, something tinged with lust—anyway, whatever flame I was nurturing I was nurturing it with care, so that, on this night as on all nights, it was burning fierce. (36-37)
The narrator loves when people, especially women, confide in her. While nannying in exchange for a free vacation to Italy, she becomes close with the mother who employs her, Artemisia. She notices Artemisia’s nipples more than once and remembers the way Artemisia’s hand felt on her neck. The narrator states at the end of the first chapter:
Artemisia was, at the time of our conversation, no older than forty-four. In other words she was young and yet, because of my age, she seemed to me old, even quote-unquote wise, and therefore untouchable, metaphorically but also literally, and so even as I was coveting her [clothing]. . . it did not then occur to me that I might also be coveting the body beneath and below. Now I know that I am never more covetous than when someone tells me a story, a secret, the sharing of a confidence stoking in me the hunger for intimacy of a more proximate kind. (27-28)
The narrator is open to the intimacy these conversations bring, and makes no effort to repress sexual thoughts, although oddly enough she never engages in any sexual act with another woman. Perhaps Popkey’s intention was to distinguish between different types of intimacy and prove that conversations are intimate without necessarily becoming physically sexual. But, as stories must in order for a character to—I don’t want to say grow, but in order for a character to change, for story to happen, the characters must—challenge the truth that the story proposes.
As the narrator spirals through her affair, the resulting pregnancy, her divorce, single motherhood, alcoholism, and loneliness, she closes herself off to conversation; her responses become shorter. She shares less about herself and listens to others for longer. She loses either her desire or ability (maybe both) to be intimate. During this time, the language is simultaneously overly-descriptive of insignificant scenic details and not descriptive enough of the narrator’s conversation partners. Popkey succeeds in illustrating how the narrator’s self-inflicted trauma removes her from any kind of intimacy—even platonic. Her son’s babysitter shares details of her life, and instead of reciprocating like one is expected to do in conversation, the narrator denies that invitation of intimacy: “Sometimes I say nothing. Silence: the great conversation killer” (194).
Topics of Conversation explores intimacy, so along comes vulnerability, followed by weakness, followed by disgust. There is a new term for the feeling one gets when a partner commits such an egregious turn-off that the relationship can’t survive; perhaps it sounds juvenile, but getting the ick is an accurate description of the feeling. It’s revulsion, and it can happen because a partner refuses to trim their nose hairs or chews too loudly or doesn’t support same-sex marriage, but for the narrator it happens when men demonstrate vulnerability. It’s an idea that Artemisia plants in the narrator’s mind when she’s just twenty-one. Perhaps the narrator would have figured this aversion out on her own, but she narrator has already drawn parallels between herself and Artemisia because they both dated their professors—the difference is that Artemisia married hers. This wise, older, attractive woman who the narrator shares some commonalities with pours out her history to the impressionable narrator, and it would be naive to suggest that the conversation was not influential to her future relationships.
So Artemisia spins her story: she married Virgilio in Argentina. He was more powerful, more established, a father figure to her even though her relationship with her own father was fine. She liked the structure and she felt comforted by the constraints of their relationship. When they moved to New York—he to teach at one university and her to attend grad school at another—their roles reversed because her English was better than his. She didn’t mind taking care of him, but hated the way it affected his ego. Artemisia says:
One searches, in one’s choice of partner, for a kind of reflection. . . Often unconsciously. And often not an honest reflection. One searches for a better-than reflection. . . Virgilio had reflected well on me. . . But in New York, Artemisia continued, he shrunk. And as he shrunk, so did I. At first I remained silent. I was saying nothing. I was ashamed. But then, Artemisia shrugged, something changed. I became a little colder. A little less deferential. A little bolder. I began to treat him a bit like a child. Knowing what someone else does not: this defines the relationship between the adult and the child. (19)
He grew jealous, demanding to know her whereabouts at all times. She says,
We had not had sex in months. Not since our first weeks in New York. By choice. By my choice. It wasn’t that he was controlling—that he was trying to be controlling. In the end this is not what bothered me. It was that his desire to control, she paused. This desire, it stemmed not from his power but from its lack. It was his desperation that I despised. (22-23)
The narrator moves on with her life, presumably never sees Artemisia again, but the lesson sticks and is reinforced by other women the narrator admires. In chapter two, the Tenant tells a story about a girl who dressed nerdy and acted prudish. She says:
I didn’t drink before college, had greasy bangs, wore long skirts because I hated my calves, wouldn’t wear pants because I hated my thighs. We should have been friends. If not friends, allies. Instead I hated her. Her vulnerabilities, her weaknesses—she wasn’t hiding them and because she wasn’t hiding them I felt she was exposing me, too. (39)
The tenant confirms what Artemisia said, that weakness deserves to be met with hatred, and that people see reflections of themselves in others. Finally, we see the narrator practice this theory in her life when she calls the hotel man a dick, and he acts as though his feelings are hurt: “Either his voice was muffled because he was facing away or, annoying possibility, I’d actually wounded him. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes” (70). Later, after leaving her husband, she explicitly states that his weakness provokes “anger” and “disgust” (94). What was a seed of thought in Italy with Artemisia grows into the narrator’s entire emotional ecosystem.
Popkey’s narrator enters the bottom of sexual power dynamics in her early years. She dates her married professor who is dominant within their sex life. She traces her hatred of kindness and comfort in taking orders back to their first sexual encounter. This happens a few months before she nannies. The reader sees how uncomfortable she is in the authoritative position at first, and how she acclimates to it after realizing that the children enjoy discipline. For the first week, they take advantage of her weakness to get whatever they want, until they grow bored. Then, they want boundaries, respond only to punishment.
The second week was worse because they’d tired, already of getting what they wanted, the desire in these cases, being not merely to get what one wants but to feel as if one is getting away with getting what one wants, and so they began to create actual trouble, trouble of the damaging-the-hotel variety, which is how I found myself, on the evening of the tenth night, yelling, for the first time really shouting at Teo to stop using the serrated dinner knife to try to liberate the feathers from a pillow. He responded wonderfully, stopped right away and only cried a little, ate his frutti di mare quietly, didn’t ask after a gelato or a chocolate profiterole. And the whole time: his eyes wide, a small smile on his lips, pink and wet, hoping for a smile in return, a nod of approval. It’s true what they say, children really do crave boundaries. (6-7)
The narrator acclimates to her authority, but her brief stint in a power position only reinforces that she doesn’t enjoy it. In her personal relationships she always prefers to play the role of submissive child with one difference: where children crave boundaries, the narrator craves to be controlled. Her fixation on the fantasy of non-consensual sex is a contributing factor to her pattern of dating “controlling and cruel” men (204)—excluding her husband, who she admits was lovely, and who she left. She even says, during a scene of verbal foreplay in that hotel, actively having the affair that left her pregnant, “I hate making choices. . . I take direction.” And so she does. What follows is the only lengthy passage of male speech in the entire novel. The man, unnamed, describes to her exactly how he likes to control women during sex, and exactly how he must be violent if they become scared. The narrator never expresses fear in this scene, only fascination. She leaves her husband the next day.
Reflecting upon that decision, she realizes that her disgust for her husband stemmed from the lack of control he exercised over her. You want to almost but not actually finish your PhD? Okay. You want to work in HR? Okay. You suddenly want a baby just because our acquaintances have babies and you think having something to constantly care for will give you a sense of purpose? Okay. It’s okay, you can be mean to me; you’re going through a lot. What’s that? You had an affair? How about couple’s therapy? No, you’d rather leave? Okay. The narrator says,
What I wanted was direction and praise for following it. As a child these were easy to find. As an adult I learned that the only people who seemed inclined to give out both were my professors, married men, almost all of them. But you can’t marry your married professor. So instead I married John. John, who was so kind and so supportive and emotionally generous and a good listener, who was everything a liberated woman is supposed to want. But then there was no one to pat me on the head for making the right choice. There was only John, who was so kind. Who was so kind and who wanted me to have desires of my own. Really it was a mean trick that the only one I developed was the desire to leave him… What I’m trying to say. . . is that I have been, that I continue to be, best at being a vessel for the desire of others. (97)
So maybe the narrator was on the right track with motherhood as a goal. She raises her son alone. She responds to his needs instantly. Mothering a baby makes sense for her — but what will become of the adult she must raise him into when all she’s good at is responding? She addresses this question as a fear:
When I worry about my son of course I worry about him dying, but when I have convinced myself that he is still breathing. . . what I worry about is how he’ll end up. I mean the possibility that he’ll end up like me. Not that I’m so horrible, just that I know I can do a great, and excellent, a perfect—I mean, my parents were fine. They weren’t amazing but certainly they did not encourage me to hate myself. They did not tell me to seek out men who were controlling and cruel, they did not suggest this is what I deserved. And if there was, during my formative years, a certain cultural consensus about what women wanted and how men should go about giving it to them, well, many others of my generation were smart enough to be skeptical of it. What I’m saying is that my life, like the lives of most people, lacks an origin story. I mean one with any explanatory power. Which means that my son could turn out any way and for any reason or for no reason at all. I’m not sure if it’s irony but here it is, at last I’ve found the thing I do want to control, and of course I can’t. (203-204)
Topics of Conversation is provocative, for older women likely reflective; for younger women educational, cautionary, eye-opening. For men, it may shed light on one version of the female psyche. The experimental structure is entertaining. The novel itself might prove inspiring to other writers who might feel stuck within the writing rules they learned in school. At 205 pages, it’s a lean novel, but I would suggest letting one chapter settle before starting the next because it’s easy to get lost in the details and miss Popkey’s deft exploration of the novel’s several themes. Topics of Conversation is an examination of intimacy in all its forms: platonic, romantic, parental, violent, sheltered, and stifled. Buy this book, reader.