‘Topics of Conversation’ by Miranda Popkey

  • "Topics of Conversation" by Miranda Popkey Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 1/16/2020 11:53:28 AM
Modified: 1/16/2020 11:52:36 AM

“Topics of Conversation” is an unusual novel. It offers a series of vignettes over the course of 17 years rather than a straightforward narrative. As the title indicates, the vignettes generally consist of conversations and monologues.

The speakers are women, among them an unnamed narrator. At the beginning of the novel, that narrator is a graduate student in English. She never quite finishes her Ph.D.

In some ways, her life appears haphazard; she falls in and out of jobs and relationships. In other ways, she tries very hard to control the course of her life by choosing the stories she tells about herself and those she invites from other narrators.

In their stories, she and the other speakers in the book address issues of gender, of sex, and of identity. They don’t always like themselves, each other, their life partners, or their children. By talking about their lives and their relationships, however, they attempt to understand why they are the way they are.

The Massachusetts author, Miranda Popkey (who recently held a book talk in South Hadley), holds a master’s in fine arts degree in creative writing. Popkey constructs her novel carefully, cleverly weaving together the stories she tells.

The book may occasionally seem too academic to the average reader. Its discussions of identity and relationships are highly self-aware and analytical. Those qualities can put a distance between the storytellers and the reader.

That distance is broken down in several of the stories, however, particularly in a central passage involving the writer Norman Mailer. This is my favorite story in the book.

The narrator finds herself, as she frequently is, between jobs and relationships. She is staying at her parents’ home. To pass the time and to dull her pain, she cruises the internet and comes across an oral-history video in which a woman is being interviewed about her acquaintance with Mailer.

The other voice in the video — presumably a person working on Mailer’s biography — tries to steer the woman into a more-or-less standard discussion of the much-lionized author. The woman stubbornly refuses to cooperate.

Instead, she dwells on her own guilt at not recognizing the monstrosity of Mailer’s behavior toward others, particularly toward women.

She recalls a party in 1960 at which Mailer’s then-wife, Adele Morales, was injured. Mailer and the other party guests maintained that Morales fell on broken glass. In fact, the woman (and the eventually the police) realized that Mailer had stabbed his wife.

This tale concerns more than Mailer and his outsized ego. Like the other stories in “Topics of Conversation,” it focuses on what we say and don’t say about the power structures around us.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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