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.
Popkey found her theme in the #MeToo movement, a public reckoning that prompted a private one for the author. “As more and more revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood figures came out, I realized that so many of the films that I watched as a younger woman were Miramax films,” she says. “And so, in a certain way, I was shaped by Harvey Weinstein’s desire.”
As Popkey points out, both she and her protagonist—and white, middle-class women like them—have “more choice than ever,” a freedom that feminism helped to bring about. But more choice means more decisions, and the narrator idealizes the constrained domesticity decried in The Feminine Mystique. “She thinks that she would be happiest in an earlier cultural moment, when her life and choices would be more circumscribed,” Popkey says of the narrator. “But she would probably be driven to the brink of suicide by having to just make dinner for her husband.”
The narrator’s enlightened husband would never ask or expect any such thing of her. Yet his “endless support” only elicits eye rolls from his wife. He is the archetypal male feminist, a character whom Popkey is suspicious of. “If you’re a fairly intelligent man steeped in a certain kind of urban culture,” she says, “you know what you’re supposed to say to convince women that you’re not the enemy. It used to be much easier to figure out if a man was going to be a danger to you emotionally, or physically. And now it’s better at disguising itself.”
She is equally wary of virtue-signaling on the part of women. The narrator throws out words and phrases like “exploitation” and “power structures” with a self-protective ironic distance. Her performance of politics is as hollow as the male feminist’s. “It’s very easy to say the right things,” Popkey says.
“So many of the films that I watched as a younger woman were Miramax films,” Popkey says. “And so, in a certain way, I was shaped by Harvey Weinstein’s desire.”
The author understands the appeal of powerlessness, in the abstract. “We are living in a moment in which fairly privileged white women have so much choice, and it can feel very comforting or relieving to let someone else make the decisions,” she says. In the book, this extends to sex. Her protagonist indulges in rape fantasies: “To be overwhelmed, to have no choice in the matter…. To be in someone else’s power, not to have to make decisions, to be in fact prevented from making all decisions.”
Our desires do not always align with our political views, which results in a cognitive dissonance. “I have a lot of desire that I don’t recognize as natural, whatever that means,” Popkey says. “Why do I want this thing that’s bad for me? Why is male rage attractive instead of terrifying? Or attractive right up to the point when it becomes terrifying?” The narrator explores her fantasy right up to that point. Afterward, the tone of her conversations changes, but the event itself is never discussed directly. “You may think, I was O.K. with it at the time, but in retrospect, were these things about it clear?,” Popkey says. “I don’t think that [conclusion] is coupled with ‘Let’s all go get our pitchforks.’”
Topics of Conversation ends with the narrator thinking about a Sam Shepard story in which, as she recalls, a man leaves his wife and revisits a series of old girlfriends in search of someone to take him in. Arriving in California, the end of America, he finds the last woman’s number has been disconnected. His story ends there: a dead end. But Popkey’s protagonist imagines an alternative ending. “He can always decide to turn around.” It’s a moment of hope in an otherwise conflicted book. “It’s difficult not to be bombarded by these received cultural notions and tired scripts and old narratives. But they can also be a fruitful place for development as opposed to an end point,” Popkey says, adding, “It’s easier to convince yourself that you’re at a dead end, when in fact you could just turn around and go in a different direction.”
Clementine Ford is an Assistant Editor at Air Mail