Miranda Popkey’s debut novel “Topics of Conversation” (2020) brims with sex, violence, drinking and failed relationships. Its unnamed narrator goes over different conversations she’s had with women spanning back to the year 2000, her college graduation year. From a recent college graduate to a divorced single mother, she reveals the rawest and most troubled aspects of herself.
The first conversation is between the narrator and the mother of her college friend. The mother, Artemisia, has hired the narrator to take care of her children during a family vacation. It is mostly one-sided, with Artemisia describing her past marriage and relationship with her own desires in a husband and sexuality.
This conversation about sex and power dynamics sets up the rest of the book. The narrator goes on to talk about her relationship with her old, married professor. The power dynamic between them and her enjoyment of his power over her follows her to her next relationship. We learn soon about her devoted husband and how she cheated on him, leaving him promptly after. She searches for a job, fights alcoholism and lives as a single mother, all while the reader peeks into her intimate conversations, further illustrating the intricacies of sex, power and violence.
Popkey makes a novel out of networks of historically whispered conversations. At its core, this novel is about female desire and power, something that is historically left out of popular conversations. At the same time, she is exploring her sexuality and seeking out what actually fulfills her.
Popkey employs social norms that women are constantly confronted with throughout their lives and tips these on their heads through her narrator, letting the warped message unravel in the process. After rejecting her suburban ‘ideal’ life with an overly-understanding husband, the narrator moves back home and works to rebuild her life in a way that can actually please her.
In the post-#MeToo era, where women are declaring their power, the narrator explores her desire to have men assert their power over her. It is an unpopular sentiment, but a real desire that she has and is trying to understand. She uses her novel to develop answers to her own questioning about the desires she has struggled to recognize in herself.
The narrator is truly honest. Whether it be certain sexual desires or infidelity and power dynamics, she gives insight into conversations that are really hard to start and often even more difficult to have. She reveals her enjoyment of having an affair with her married professor and how cheating on her husband actually satisfied her desires. She breaks up with friends and boyfriends and feels the weight of these losses and changes.
Part of the most striking element of Popkey’s novel is how captivating each chapter is. Each one is a different conversation at a different moment in her life that yanks your interest, forcing you to tumble through, no matter how hard the content is. Her self-destructive behavior makes it difficult to keep reading. Yet, these types of conversations are not usually depicted outside of closed doors, which makes it impossible to not read on.
As the book continues, her character grows, as does her understanding of the negative behaviors that plague her. She almost becomes cheeky with the reader, acknowledging the judgment you might be giving her while turning that judgment back upon the reader. You understand her faults, whether it be in relationships or her struggle with alcoholism. But you also understand the ways that she refuses to let anyone else have jurisdiction over her desires — something that forces you to think about letting yourself push through to your own desires.
“Topics of Conversation” is about this woman’s struggle, but it is also a struggle to read itself. One of the most difficult aspects is her rape fantasies and the necessity for male domination over her body. Sometimes she wants things usually thought of as ‘problematic,’ like relinquishing her power to a man that society tells her she should not want. Popkey asks her reader if women’s desires should be deemed ‘bad’ or not if they consent to and enjoy them.She pushes the reader to think about whether or not social politics are allowed to rule over desire.
In this way, she is sparking conversation simply with whether or not this book is helpful in any way. Popkey herself uses the book to understand whether or not this is a narrative worth creating and sharing. It is controversial, but that is her point. She forces topics out of the closet and into your hands, refusing to let you look away.