‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ is one of those lines that is quoted so often out of context it has lost its original meaning. Another is ‘I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’ In isolation, the Frost line sounds sincere; I’ve seen it printed on inspirational posters. But when you read the whole poem, it’s clear that it’s ironic – a joke about self-deception. With Didion’s line – the opening sentence of The White Album – you need the full paragraph to understand that it’s contemptuous. The word ‘stories’ has a mushy, nostalgic feel, as in, ‘Tell me a story, Daddy.’ What she means, though, is lies – or if not lies, manipulations: ‘We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’ The phantasmagoria of ‘images’ is reality – the narrative of language is the lie.
Miranda Popkey’s debut, Topics of Conversation, is almost a novelisation of the Didion quote, with all its intended implications of corruption and compromise: the dirty side of narrativisation. It’s a novel told in ten conversations over seventeen years. Each conversation is given its own chapter, labeled with the setting and the year it took place, and each represents a defining point in the storyline of the unnamed narrator’s adult life – in the formation of her identity, or at least her self-image. The novel begins in the year 2000, in coastal Italy, where she has gone on vacation with a wealthy college friend, Camila, and Camila’s family. Camila’s parents cover the narrator’s expenses in exchange for her acting as nanny to Camila’s rowdy twin brothers.
Artemisia, the mother, is beautiful and glamorous, and the narrator admires her for this as well as for her self-understanding: ‘She knew herself so well and I, at twenty-one, had not yet settled on the governing narrative of my life.’ One night, after the boys are in bed, Artemisia joins her on the balcony with a bottle of white wine and monologues at her a story about her failed first marriage. She had become involved with a professor while at university in Buenos Aires, then moved with him to New York, where the balance of power in their relationship shifted; because her English was better than his, she reports, ‘He needed my help.’ Once dependent on her, he grew bitter and jealous, even violent. Artemisia tells this story in the manner of a character from Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy: through the narrator’s memory, and without quotation marks to create clean boundaries between her speech and the narrator’s thoughts:
Virgilio had reflected well on me. He had shown me to be intelligent, worldly, mature. He had shown me to be older than my years, which is often what young people, what young women in particular, wish for. Perhaps you, Artemisia said, you, too, have wished for this. And now I thought of my former professor. I thought of how the games we had played, me taking dictation from him while – how they had emphasised not my maturity but my inferiority.
That’s the narrator thinking of her former professor. She has also been involved with an older, more powerful man, though Artemisia doesn’t know this, unless by some clairvoyant intuition, or unless the narrator or her memory is unreliable – more unreliable, that is, than any first-person narrator or anyone’s memory.
As Artemisia talks, they sip and exhale their way through the wine and a pack of cigarettes. The narrator just listens – at least in her version, the version she has turned into part of her own life narrative. She fidgets self-consciously, gets lusty: ‘Now I know that I am never more covetous than when someone tells me a story, a secret, the sharing of a confidence stoking in me the hunger for intimacy of a more proximate kind.’ Is it the story she likes, or the listening? The passive receiving of information is a conversational form of what she later figures out is her problematic kink: she likes to be ordered around, treated badly, physically dominated and hurt, not just sexually but emotionally. She likes the terms of her relationships to be imbalanced. She knows this preference isn’t feminist – ‘You can take the girl out of the grad school but you can’t take the grad school out of the–’ she jokes to herself, trailing off, sick of her own mind. She feels guilty, but she can’t help it.
A decade later, the narrator’s quiet deference in conversation is gone. She has become cruel and petty and self-loathing; she despises kindness because she doesn’t deserve it. Speaking of a woman who appears in 2010 – they meet to converse at a San Francisco museum – and isn’t heard from again, she notes, ‘The first premise of our friendship was the understanding that we were, both of us, bad people. Or that we believed ourselves to be bad people. What’s that old line? Ah, yes, now I remember: Every adult in the Anthropocene who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows he’s a real piece of shit.’ This twist on Janet Malcolm’s famous line about ethics in journalism is a half-hearted attempt at self-exculpatory reasoning; if everyone is bad, being bad isn’t bad. But she isn’t convinced, or she wouldn’t want so badly to be punished.
By 2012, she’s at the end of her rope with her lovely, supportive husband who just wants her to be happy. They’ve been trying to have a baby and failing, and he’s so understanding of her wild moods she just grows angrier and angrier. ‘This was before Tinder,’ Popkey writes, so the narrator makes up a lie and packs a low-cut dress and finds a hotel bar where she can drink and wait for ‘someone on the bar stool next to me with a room key and none of the obvious markers for sociopathy.’ She is snidely aware that her behavior invites disapproval:
It was the situation we’d all, the girls of my generation, been warned against … When we 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: sitting alone, drinking too quickly, my legs bare and my shoes no good for running.
Like magic, a man does appear, ‘handsome in a midlevel-chain-hotel sort of way, standard issue,’ and seems to know what she wants, which is part of the fantasy – that she won’t have to articulate, even to herself, what she desires. They go up to his room, she drinks more bourbon, and he pushes her back on the bed, then performs what seems like rehearsed, ritual speech, a way of forcing a gesture toward consent via threat: ‘Some girls get confused. Some girls don’t know what they want. And then you have to tie their wrists up real tight even before you take your belt off,’ he says. ‘When a girl’s confused … that ruins it.’ She seems scared – the blood in her neck is throbbing – but she assures him she isn’t confused. It’s an echo of her first almost-sexual encounter with her former professor, who had pushed her face-down into a hotel bedspread and told her, ‘Don’t move,’ then left her there for twenty minutes. She was surprised by how much she liked this: ‘I didn’t have to do anything. There were no choices to make.’ It’s an echo, that is, in her linear life narrative; a pre-echo in the novel, since we don’t learn about the earlier experience until 2014, when the narrator gets drunk on white wine – her first drink since having a baby – and confesses it to a group of other single mothers. That one-night-stand in 2012 had given her an excuse to leave her husband; she claims she’s having an affair and ignores his pleas to try therapy. It had also left her pregnant.
Alcohol plays a large role in this book, in these characters’ lives – they are always sipping something, sipping and shrugging, lighting cigarettes and exhaling. Wielding their props, they feel a little like props themselves; after being processed by the narrator’s memory, they exist solely in service to the narrative. At first it feels like an authorial tic, a lapse of control, but as the novel progresses, it comes to feel more like an excess of control, as though the narrator, or author, or both, were moving them around like marionettes. If some of the characters, these wounded women, are similar to each other, it may be because they’re all facets of the narrator’s mind, like the cast of a dream. They are doubly fictional. There’s a Freudian streak in this novel: multiple characters are either psychoanalysts or seeing psychoanalysts. This is conversation as talk therapy – or, as Adam Phillips might say, the narrator is ‘redescribing’ people from her past both to figure out a problem and to make her life more interesting. If the therapist isn’t there, she has become more interesting to herself. An unreliable narrator is a brain in a vat – a novelist is too.
The alcohol serves an enabling function, allowing women to admit to shameful wants or shameful acts, to entertain their most taboo thoughts (those ‘less acceptable and so less accessible’), to give up control and then absolve themselves partially of blame. The narrator drinks in part to give others permission to drink: in Fresno, her baby asleep in the other room, she pours a third glass of wine to help encourage a friend to explain how ‘it happened.’ (I’ve just noticed the word courage in encourage.) ‘I did not need more wine but I sensed Sandra’s anxiety,’ she says. ‘I was tipsy, yes, but also I was grace itself.’ On the way home she stops for more wine and then drinks it; it’s helping her mind race, she’s getting at something:
I poured myself another glass of wine. Truth didn’t help. Everything that had ever happened could never be integrated into something coherent. The trick was picking the right moments. The trick was knowing when to lie. I’d drained my third glass, part of a fourth wouldn’t hurt, two-thirds of a glass, three-quarters.
Many writers, including Didion, have claimed that they write to ‘figure out what they think’ – as though one’s thoughts are already there, but are somehow hidden from one. This has never felt quite accurate to me, to my own process. Rather, writing helps me think; it makes me better at thinking. Talking, conversing, can also help – though I’m much better at writing than I am at talking – and even thinking in words and syntax, privately, helps clarify my thinking. In passages like this wine-addled one, we can see the narrator struggling but succeeding to translate her inner phantasmagoria into sentences, an end that almost justifies the means. She is learning how to write the story that will override reality – how to think about her thoughts.
All the drinking serves another function: It makes the narrator less likeable, easier to demonise. When that serviceable business man had asked her – or told her, rather, no question mark – ‘Tell me why you’re here’, she responded, ‘I am here to prove my monstrousness to myself and to my husband. I want someone else to see, to confirm, my monstrousness, too.’ Her monstrousness, at that point, was mostly theoretical. (Some people believe it’s permissible to do bad things if you’re really ‘a good person inside’; she feels herself rotten to the core, therefore bad actions would be more authentic.) By 2016, however, she is going full monster, leaving her kid with a babysitter so she can drive around drinking bourbon with a little coffee in it from a thermos, ‘picking up’ an interlocutor, another monstrous woman, at a grocery store. By nighttime the narrator has abandoned her phone with her clothes on the beach, so she won’t hear the sitter calling, a profound indulgence in her taste for ‘abdication of responsibility.’ They swim naked as the woman tells her story – she’d had a perfect life, was rich and beautiful, and ‘did the worst thing a woman can do.’ She left her family without warning because when she looked at her daughter she felt nothing – not love or hatred, just nothing. What’s more, she shows no remorse: ‘I don’t regret it.’
There’s a recent trend for misanthropic female characters, especially narrators that go way past unlikeable to detestable. In novels by Halle Butler, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Lydia Kiesling, the protagonists are slobs, drunks, sluts, and worst of all, in the eyes of the judgmental masses, bad mothers. It feels like a ‘fuck you’ reaction to the strain of critique that wants fiction, especially fiction by women, to present examples of moral living. These characters make you squirm on purpose, and Popkey’s narrator might be especially discomfiting because of the obvious Cusk influence. Cusk by her own admission writes autofiction. Popkey does not – ‘I, to be clear, never had an affair with any of my professors,’ she said in a recent interview, perhaps anticipating the assumptions readers tend to make about fiction by women and people of color – that it is thinly veiled autobiography. But by borrowing so heavily from Cusk for the novel’s structure, she seems to dare the reader to wonder if there is an equivalent overlap between narrator and author. In a way this almost feels like a trap for the reader, a way to catch us in the act of our own misogyny – as if we need a real flesh-and-blood woman to hate, a character is not enough.
This night of skinny-dipping with a woman who might be genuinely evil is the narrator’s own rock-bottom, her last conversation under the influence of liquor. It has helped her arrive at a moral to her own story: ‘You don’t want what you want.’ She moves home and goes to rehab on her parents’ dime. She gets a therapist. It’s a kind of giving up – ‘I lost the argument with myself” – a concession that any desire is forgivable, but some are only forgivable if you don’t act on the impulse. ‘You can change everything, anything,’ the woman from the grocery store had said to her, ‘as long as you’re prepared to deal with the consequences.’ She had also said, ‘Happiness is boring. I mean to describe.’ Did she say that? Would the narrator, wasted on bourbon, remember? Or is it the narrator’s revelation, a thought from the brain in the vat?
The novel has to end when the narrator has settled for the boredom of stability. Topics of Conversation is about sexual desire, but it’s also about the desire for Rilkean change, a true break in continuity. Not being oneself for an interlude (while drunk or overwhelmed by another’s desires or brute force) is at least a break from the relentlessness of selfhood, the life you’re afraid to radically alter, because of collateral damage, because your new life could be worse.