Miranda Popkey's first novel is about desire, disgust, motherhood, loneliness, art, pain, feminism, anger, envy, guilt. The novel is composed almost exclusively of conversations between women—the stories they tell each other, and the stories they tell themselves, about shame and love, infidelity and self-sabotage—and careens through twenty years in the life of an unnamed narrator hungry for experience and bent on upending her life.
... bedazzling, psychologically fraught ... In the abstract, Topics of Conversation is about social and sexual power, anger, envy, pain, honesty, self-delusion and female identity. In the moment, the novel is riveting, disturbing and thought-provoking. It’s a slender volume with the power of lightning.
Popkey’s sentences careen breathlessly as her halting, staccato prose mirrors the 'churning' within the narrator’s mind—the pulsing interior dialogue, the em-dash-laden reasoning back and forth with herself. Narrative agency is what interests the author, her manner of parceling out information evoking at times the fragmentary and diaristic sensibilities of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Her style also conjures the rambling (and occasionally solipsistic) meditations on self-definition in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and aspires to reproduce the rhythm of spoken communication in Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 novel-in-dialogue, Talk ... Popkey presents us with a shrewd record of the act of unflinchingly circling these amorphous notions of pain, desire and control, all the while quietly noting their clichéd contrivances in snarky, dark humor. I liked being inside her mind; it felt natural. She doesn’t arrive at a totalizing, liberated endpoint. The most we can do is listen to her story.
... though there is much discussion about morality and desire in this book, it asks no radical question about why women in particular should feel beholden to people who like them, love them, or desire them ... for a book that deals in the paradoxes of desire, very little is described below the waist ... It is hard to know if these stories are chosen to illustrate some essential or unsayable truth of female sexuality ... Popkey understands the intimate and seductive purposes of self-disclosure. She is alert to the moment when story turns into self-enclosure, or narcissistic display. She also knows how competitive all that can get ... The voice, so light and elusive, performs one paradox after another, until paralysis becomes the natural and desired solution ... It is almost unfair to unravel Popkey’s light and winding arguments about love and desire, turning, as they do, on various elegant reversals, except to point out that the problem is always her narrator’s problem, and no matter where she tries to go, she always lands back at her own doorstep ... [The narrator is] good company, able to turn a good sentence and to maintain a tone, which is to say a distance, from the life described.