You knew it was bound to happen: the pushback against the #MeToo movement, the arguments for nuance. Not just from accused men proclaiming their innocence, but from a wave of novels (including Mary Gaitskill's This Is Pleasure, and Sally Rooney's Normal People) reminding us that relationships and female desire can be complicated and quirky.
In Miranda Popkey's slim but potent first novel, Topics of Conversation, sex, desire, and failed relationships are ever at the fore. Her unnamed narrator, a troubled young woman, reports on a series of conversations with various other women — a classmate's mother, fellow graduate students, fellow single mothers — over a span of 17 years following her graduation from college in 2000.
What do these women talk about when they talk about love? Affairs with older professors. Self-sabotaging behavior, including deliberately harmful lies. Restlessness. Rape fantasies. Female subjugation, exploitation, and humiliation. Irritation with weak or overly dependent men. But above all, the vagaries of female desire, which for some is about a wish to be cared for, while for others takes the form of wanting to control or be controlled.
The first conversation, with the mother of the narrator's college classmate, has the flavor of a Rachel Cusk interchange — which is to say, it's mostly a one-way confession. Artemisia Perez, an elegant, New York-based Argentinian psychotherapist "no older than forty-four" has hired the narrator — her daughter's friend — to accompany the family on vacation to Italy to mind her 7-year-old twin sons. She joins the narrator one night on their hotel suite's terrace, and, over wine and cigarettes, soliloquizes on her two marriages to older, esteemed professors. She left her first husband, she explains, after an episode of jealous, violent sex — not because she was afraid of him but because it revealed his weakness and desperation. What she wanted, she tells the 21-year-old narrator, was a strong man who could take care of her without needing to control her. What she found, the narrator surmises, was security, but at the cost of being "Trapped ... in a hedge maze of her own careful design."
The narrator absorbs all this, along with Artemisia's remarks that for women, "raised to believe that they should not desire sex," desire is often linked to shame. We'll learn much more about the narrator's shame later. But in this first conversation, the narrator, like the writer in Cusk's Outline trilogy, does not divulge much about herself. Unmentioned, along with the fact that her boyfriend won't be following her to graduate school in Michigan because he's actually a married professor, is something it will take years — and a failed marriage to an "endlessly supportive" man who gets on her nerves — to face: "[T]he fact that I instinctively hate kindness."
In subsequent chapters we see this miserable young woman struggling to find the right narrative to make sense of her life as she self-medicates with alcohol and lands in dead-end jobs. At a graduate school gathering in Ann Arbor, another literature student slowly spools a story of a party where no one spoke up when a TA who was known to prey on coeds carried a very drunk, inexperienced undergraduate into a spare bedroom and emerged 20 minutes later fiddling with his belt. The narrator is horrified — "the act itself, of course, wrong, that was indisputable, criminal even" — but wonders, "Could what the graduate student did be wrong and what I sometimes felt I wanted also be right?" What did she want? "Something to do with being chosen, something to do with release of responsibility."
In an intriguing twist, the narrator finds this abdication of responsibility in motherhood, with its imperative to respond to her infant son's demands without thought. She writes, "Many women fear losing, in childbirth, in the daily act of mothering, autonomy, independence, selfhood. I had never had a self I was much interested in keeping and a child will give direction as well as, better than, a married professor."
This is tricky stuff — a self-loathing narrator who also "loathed intimacy even as [she] understood its necessity." Like a determined firefighter, Popkey pushes through the dark smoke, but what she exposes are difficult emotions, and what she taps into is an "erotic current" that tingles and titillates, sometimes uncomfortably. "Telling people what you want, speaking desire ... It's like telling people how to hurt you, handing them instructions," she writes.
In her endnotes, Popkey acknowledges a slew of writers who have influenced her, including not just Gaitskill and Cusk, but Ronan Farrow, Margo Jefferson, Carmen Maria Machado, and Renata Adler, along with filmmakers Wes Anderson and Olivier Assayas. Curiously missing from this heady list is Sally Rooney, the Irish literary sensation whose Conversations with Friends and Normal People bear striking parallels with Topics of Conversation that extend beyond their similar titles. Like Rooney's sympathetic, downtrodden waif, Popkey's narrator is smart but believes she deserves pain.
She also believes "in the redemptive power of almost anything that is unpleasant and/or difficult." In this provocative debut, Popkey has gone deep inside the head of someone who is wired to make things hard for herself. The result is sure to spark conversation.