In the opening chapter of Miranda’s Popkey’s bedazzling, psychologically fraught first novel, the unnamed narrator is a graduate student spending the summer in Italy, caring for the young twin brothers of a wealthy classmate who has already begun distancing herself. In her off hours, the narrator reads Sylvia Plath’s journal and describes herself as “daffy with sensation, drunk with it.”
Seeking advice on how to manage her rebellious young charges, the narrator knocks on the bedroom door of the boys’ mother, an elegant Argentinian psychoanalyst. The woman changes out of her bikini in front of the uncomfortable narrator and tells her that the boys are timid, eager to please and need to be punished. Later in this chapter, the psychoanalyst describes the dynamics of her first marriage to one of her college professors. The narrator never tells the psychoanalyst that she, too, has had a love affair with a professor.
Miranda Popkey’s first novel is a slender volume with the power of lightning.
Subsequent chapters span 20 years of the narrator’s life. Each has at its center a conversation with another woman or sometimes several women. Most of these women are social outsiders. In one chapter, the narrator meets a friend at a San Francisco museum where a Swedish artist is exhibiting work about female subjugation. The friend is distraught because of her breakup with her boyfriend. She admits she had an affair, but later she confesses that she invented the affair to get out of the relationship. The narrator observes that “beneath the first premise of our friendship was the understanding that we were, both of us, bad people.”
In a later chapter, the narrator crashes into the shopping cart of another woman at a Vons grocery store in Santa Barbara. They end up getting drunk together and going for a swim, and the other woman confesses that she abandoned her child. “I did the worst thing a woman can do, even though men—you know, you must know, men do this all the goddam time,” the woman tells her.
The narrator thinks she’s the smartest person in the room, and she probably is. She is keenly observant, but her sense of self wavers, and her self-knowledge tends toward the self-lacerating. Only at the end of the novel does the narrator see glimmers of redemption.
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.