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“Conversation is flirtation,” which is fitting given that Miranda Popkey’s debut novel “Topics of Conversation” is all about desire, and, of course, flirtation. The novel is also a flirtation with its literary predecessors: It’s been compared to Lydia Davis and Sally Rooney, and the author herself references works from Jenny Zhang’s collection “Sour Heart” to Martin Scorsese’s film “Goodfellas” as inspiration in her “Works (Not) Cited” at the back of the book. “Topics of Conversation” has some big shoes to fill, and while this novel isn’t necessarily going to be the groundbreaking text of the decade, it’s certainly worth the read.
“Composed almost exclusively of conversations between women,” this tiny novel — barely bigger than a hand and clocking in at 205 pages — may seem a bit gimmicky (at least, that was my worry). Yet Popkey avoids falling into the traps that confound many an experimental author. While the book is spread out across two decades and jumps from conversation to conversation, the dialogue is accompanied with the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, her backstory, and her deepest desires. Filling in these details allows Popkey to fill in the gaps between conversations. In a way, it reads like most contemporary literary fiction rather than a transcription of conversations.
What makes this novel distinctive is not the structure but the prose. Anyone who has ever been tasked with transcribing human speech will know that we do not speak with perfect grammar. In fact, human speech doubles back, pauses, and leaves phrases or entire sentences unfinished in ways that are often infuriating for someone trying to put together a coherent written document. Popkey writes the way humans really speak. At first, it’s maddening — why can’t she just write clearly? — but soon it becomes clear that this is not random incoherence but rather an apt reflection of the way we actually talk to one another. While it may bend the rules of grammar, the meaning is clear: “she lifted her hand and waved it, at the side of the stage, waiting for the line so that she can — for the cue.” Popkey’s characters are no more inarticulate than the rest of us.
And no review of this book would be complete without talking about the topics of these conversations: desire. At the heart of it all is desire: what women desire, what men desire, and how we all express or hide it. The novel is full of clear explanations for particular behaviors : “When [women] thought about sex we thought mostly about ways to defend against what we didn’t want instead of ways to pursue what we did. So that now the way I thought to attract a man was to make myself vulnerable to attack.” the truthfulness lays the characters bare in a way that is almost painful. But perhaps these truths are painful because we’d rather not think about them, so deeply ingrained as they are in our society.
Some of the characters, however, are hard to relate to. While their thoughts are understandable — who hasn’t felt desire or an inexplicable sense of self-hatred? — their actions are not. Take, for example, a character whose self-destructive tendencies go so far as to create a fake email account to pretend she is cheating on her fiance, leaving her own account open for him to find. The actions characters take in “Topics of Conversation” are often over-exaggerations of what actual people might do with very real feelings.
Perhaps the biggest word of caution about “Topics of Conversations” is all the comparisons that plague it: When contrasted with other well-known authors, it’s hard for it to stand alone. Popkey will likely not rise to the level of fame of Rooney or Davis, but that’s a high bar. This is a novel that should be read, for its masterful use of speech-like prose and for the meaningful conversations it will inspire.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.
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