Let’s begin at the end. Immediately after the last line of Miranda Popkey’s sharp debut novel “Topics of Conversation,” the reader encounters a list of “Works (Not) Cited”: “texts, television shows, films, web series, works of art, songs, e-mail newsletters, and podcasts” that this book, in one way or another, “engage[s] with and in some cases refers elliptically to” .
The list occupies almost three whole pages; rarely have I seen an author more willingly lay bare her influences and affiliations. Popkey writes in a certain kind of style — masterfully controlled, delightfully chilly — and she writes about a certain kind of thing: erotic desire and its relation to power. So of course she mentions Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” and “Transit”; of course she doffs her cap to Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”; of course she cites Renata Adler and Mary Gaitskill and Annie Ernaux and Vivian Gornick.
All of which is to say, there’s less an anxiety of, than a delight in, influence here. Popkey aligns herself with a specific tradition: women who write coolly about the hotness of desire, disciplining and examining that which seems most undisciplined and unexaminable. These writers are interested in desire, yes. But they’re more interested in demonstrating a particular approach to desire, an approach that makes itself felt in the rigor of their language and the exactingness of their syntax.
Popkey’s unnamed narrator is intelligent and discerning, slightly discomfiting in the ruthlessness with which she interrogates herself and those around her. First, she’ll say one thing: in listening to a woman tell an intimate story, for instance, she muses, “what I most wanted to do was stop [her mouth] with my own.” Then, she’ll revise what she’s just said: “I’m trying also to say that this desire need not be, was not in this case, sexual.” Then, she’ll refine even further: “Not in the way the term [sexual] is commonly understood.” Revise, revise, revise; refine, refine, refine. Desire always exceeds our ability to articulate or define it, but Popkey’s sentences, in their relentless drive to clarify and elucidate, try the impossible task anyway.
Sometimes, the language can sound overly fussy, as when the narrator describes herself as “the kind of person who goes straight from a major in English to a graduate program for study of same” and then uses the “of same” formulation again three pages later. But then you realize that the fussiness — or, really, the drive for precision — is motivated by need. It’s the fussy precision that keeps anarchic desire at bay, or at least momentarily tamed.
“Topics of Conversation” is, at one level, a Bildungsroman. It opens in 2000 with its unnamed narrator, an English grad student studying “female pain in Jacobean revenge tragedies” , on vacation in Italy. Or, as she fastidiously puts it, “both on vacation and not” : she’s nannying for her friend’s two little brothers. The novel closes in 2017 in the San Joaquin Valley, by which time the narrator has gotten married, cheated, gotten divorced, developed a drinking problem, and come to some kind of stability.
But this summary makes the narrative arc smoother than it is. Like Cusk’s “Outline,” Popkey’s novel proceeds largely via a series of conversations — discrete scenes in which women, some friends and some strangers, reveal themselves and their desires. It’s 2012 in Los Angeles; the narrator watches a video in which an older woman remembers being at the party where Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Then, it’s 2014 in Fresno; the narrator drinks and swaps stories with a group of single moms. Then, it’s 2016 in Santa Barbara; the narrator listens to a woman account for her decision to abandon her newborn child. The stories differ in their particulars. But they all concern desire’s perversity, its refusal to be reasoned with or about; and most concern desire’s fraught relationship to power. (Speaking of power, another book in Popkey’s “Works (Not) Cited”: Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.”)
We hear about the narrator’s own history of desire: how she got married only to find herself “best at being a vessel for the desire of others” ; how she came to recognize her own longings as tied up with power and subjugation: “basically the problem was I liked not having to decide” . We also hear, because the narrator hears, about other women’s lives — their marriages and affairs, their struggles against abuse and their complicity in their own humiliations. One woman, right after college, has a horrid sexual relationship with her much older boss: “he could see the ugliness in women, I mean, how ugly they believed themselves to be. It was some kind of superpower he had.”
The stories the women in “Topics of Conversation” tell tidy up that which is messy. That is the moment things went wrong, they say; this sordid affair reveals the truth of my life. Stories shape desire, Popkey suggests, and desire shapes stories. Both shape, even determine, the self.
Popkey gives us oracular-sounding pronouncements on whole zones of intimacy: “There is, below the surface of every conversation in which intimacies are shared, an erotic current” . Yet, at the same time, she reminds us that such statements always fail to capture that which they seek. Despite the clearest of minds, despite the sharpest of prose styles, we’re left like Popkey’s narrator: “I didn’t know what to do with my body telling me You don’t know what you want.”
TOPICS OF CONVERSATION
by Miranda Popkey
Knopf, 224 pp. $24
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’