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The Limits of the Confessional Novel

For the characters in Miranda Popkey’s debut, opening up doesn’t always bring relief.


Four women, all single mothers, are drinking wine together. As often happens when people sit in the same room sharing the same alcohol, they begin to exchange stories. Each woman chooses the pivotal moment in her life when a certain domestic situation—“kid and no partner”—became “inevitable.” Each narrates to the others how, or when, “it happened.”

Knopf, 224 pp., $24.00

The resulting testimonies, like the rest of Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, Topics of Conversation, involve shame, self-hatred, misogyny, and, quite frequently, the appearance of predatory older men. One woman, the novel’s narrator, recounts an affair she had in college with a professor, and the night he ordered her not to “fucking move” while holding her facedown against a bed. Another woman presents a similar case study: She was 23, he 50 and verbally abusive. “If you’re a man, a white man, being mean,” she summarizes, “you usually get what you want.” Both characters admit to the relief of going limp, physically and existentially, in the face of male desire. They suspect that their stories possess oracular power, that a single moment might explain and determine all of what follows from it—one’s entire life.

Much of Topics of Conversation unfolds like this, with women speaking in turns. They tell each other about former relationships and pregnancies, about wanting to sleep with their therapists. The testimonies in the book are long, unfolding at a pace of approximately one per chapter. Popkey’s narrator will occasionally divulge her own memories, but mostly she adopts the Cuskian stance of the listener. Over the book’s course we learn the rough inflection points of her life—she marries, she cheats, she has a baby—but never her name. This seems crucial, the foundational privacy that permits all other disclosures; we know everything about this woman, but we don’t know who she is.

People who read and write literature like to invoke the myth that storytelling is an emancipatory, even life-sustaining, exercise, but in Topics its potential feels suspect. Many of the book’s stories revolve around a failure—of nerve, of feeling, of a marriage. While speaking, one woman posits that she must have been “tricked” into the guiding desires of her life; under patriarchy, she “could not trust” herself to want in a way that was ethical or healthy. Self-reflection, here, can feel akin to fingering a fabric for its primeval snarl, the point where it all went wrong. Confession does not always imply atonement.

Popkey’s novel opens onto a vista of blue. The narrator, 21 and “daffy with sensation,” is vacationing on the Italian seaside with two well-to-do psychoanalysts who have hired her as an au pair for their youngest children. The father is largely absent. The mother, Artemisia, is the best kind of narcissist in literature—which is to say, the glamorous kind—someone who wafts around in white linen and declares Sylvia Plath to be “not a very good poet … but yes, an interesting person.” She takes the narrator into her confidence, relating a sometimes violent affair she had with a professor when she was young: “I have,” she says, “never wanted control in my interpersonal relationships. I have only wanted to be cared for.”

The book knows that an ability to monologue articulately about destabilizing life events represents the culmination of a longer emotional process by which trauma calcifies into anecdote, the thing one can stash away and bring out at will. Every woman in Popkey’s book is allowed to tell her story in full, for, as with a recovery group, interruptions by others are discouraged. This etiquette makes the more turbulent emotions in Topics feel contained, if not outright sedated (alcohol, it should be said, maintains a constant presence throughout the novel). There is no catharsis at the end of a story, only shrugs. “Well, I should go to bed,” Artemisia says, after finishing. “Does anyone want any more wine?” another teller deflects.

The more the characters reveal of themselves, the further Popkey probes the limits of self-knowledge. In a 1982 interview, the theorist Michel Foucault said that the purpose of knowledge was the continuous “transformation of one’s self.” Any feminist today has had to consider the inverse: that knowing how a patriarchal society works—how so many of our desires have been trained to move jerkily to its precepts—does not transform the self, but hardens it. Exposing the existence of totalizing social structures can make them feel all the more invincible. One comes to expect one’s own oppression. Knowledge becomes a mummifying force, formalizing expectations into defeatism.

The book deftly reflects this sense of depletion and stasis; it is forthright about its own clichés, leaning hard into their sordid edges. There is a bourgeois coming of age, set against a sensual European summer; multiple relationships between young women and their professors, one of whom wears “elbow patches”; some hotel room sex. “I was pretty sure I knew where this story was going,” remarks the narrator at one point. She means that people’s stories are clichéd because life, under patriarchy, is so often clichéd. When characters invoke certain inner feelings, their speech sometimes splices into em-dashed fragments: “The point is, I’m always—my mind’s always—there’s a churning inside, you know?” These breaks happen not when language approaches the ineffable—that which can’t be expressed and, ultimately, known—but when it comes up against basic, ugly truths, truths that everyone in the room already understands and doesn’t need to hear.

Other times, playing to type can feel like a betrayal of principle. “The comfort I take, in being told what to do,” says the narrator of her penchant for submission. “The fact that I instinctively hate kindness.” Other characters admit to finding surrender pleasurable, even as they fear conforming to stereotypes of the docile woman who, in works like Rocky and Gone With the Wind, must have her desires forced upon her by a man. Writing in 1984, the feminist philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky suggested that “the fantasy that we are overpowered by Rhett Butler should be traded for one in which we seize state power and re-educate him.” But the task becomes more complex on the level of individual narrative, where Popkey must simultaneously valorize the self-expression of her female characters, show how their feelings may have been conditioned by misogyny, and also maintain that this conditioning does not disqualify them as autonomous, free-thinking people. Do we believe a woman who might not believe herself?

In the end, Popkey’s narrator sidesteps the problem somewhat, by choosing to regard “governing narratives” as a “folly.” Understanding a problem “is the first step to fixing it,” she notes, “only I’m not sure whether I care to take any further action.” Instead, the narrator turns to the “redemptive power of physical labor” (she renovates her house), as well as the redemptive power “of anything unpleasant and/or difficult” (she goes to therapy). The book’s final chapter daringly undercuts Topics’ structural conceit, which is that every story possesses inherent, equal value and is deserving of receptive attention. Sometimes, it is better to stay quiet, to try stewing in doubt. No person can be free from knowledge of the self or the world. But if she manages to get out from beneath her own despairing expectations, she can try to make life better, more spacious, for herself and those around her. It is not easy. It is not impossible.