Power, desire, violence, and sex are among the Topics of Conversation in Miranda Popkey’s debut novel of that title, which was published by Knopf last month. But on the national level, hard lines and strict definitions are required—sides must be taken—whereas Popkey’s book is set on a smaller scale, and structured around a series of intimate conversations between women in kitchens, grad-school apartments, and a contemporary-art museum. Taking a sidelong view of the cultural discussion, the novel embraces ambiguity, which not only makes for good reading but also constructive dialogue. “Women are thinking about all of this nuance,” Popkey tells me, “but that is not reflected in the public discourse.”
Popkey, who is 32, briefly worked as a teacher and then in publishing at Farrar, Straus and Giroux before getting an M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and has generated a lot of attention for a first-time novelist, drawing comparisons to Sally Rooney, Jenny Offill, and Rachel Cusk. “Outline opened up a real space of possibility for me,” Popkey says of Cusk’s 2014 book. “When I read it, I thought this is how I might structure a novel.” As in Outline, each chapter in Topics of Conversation takes its shape from stories told in conversation with the unnamed protagonist. But unlike Cusk’s aloof narrator, Popkey’s processes the stories to make sense of things, even if she arrives at somewhat ambivalent conclusions, both about herself and others.