Sometime in the 1980s Catholic primary school teachers in Ireland abandoned the concept of sin, considering it too harsh for the six-year-olds they were training for the confessional. They reached instead for the phrase “a failure to love,” a devastating switch that moved children from the pleasures of transgression (who doesn’t like a good sin?) to the wilderness of abandonment. It was like accusing them of causing their own loneliness. There is, perhaps, a game to be played with novels along these lines, dividing fictional characters into those who sin and those who are merely wrongheaded and sad. It might also be useful to ask if the latter are more often female.
The narrator of Miranda Popkey’s first novel, Topics of Conversation, is the daughter of an old Hollywood family, now in gentle decline. Her nice, white life “was going to be suburban, it was going to be upper-middle-class,” but she throws all that into disarray when she decides to leave her husband, John, who loves her. She does this despite the fact that he was “so kind and so supportive and emotionally generous and a good listener…everything a liberated woman is supposed to want.” Her remorse is partly political: How can a woman refuse all that for herself, when it is exactly what she wants for women in general? Her regret is also, in part, simply human—she does not love a man who loves her, and the pain he feels when she leaves him makes her feel badly about herself.
The problem seems self-evident, but though there is much discussion about morality and desire in this book, it asks no radical question about why women in particular should feel beholden to people who like them, love them, or desire them. Why do women feel guilty when they cannot love the person they “should” love? (Of course they feel guilty! Is there another way to feel about all that?) The question Popkey asks is familiar from the nineteenth-century novel, where it is also a question about society: Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina abandon marriage for love, and both suffer disastrous consequences. For Popkey, society has been replaced by feminism as the system that tells you whom to love, though this switch from authority to the dismantling of authority does not solve the problem of desire. Her narrator tries to date men who have “working definitions of the word feminism” themselves; these are “lovely men, men with advanced degrees and wit to spare,” but when they try to kiss her, she recoils. “It was as if every cell in my body began immediately trying to pull away.”
Her need to be dominated cannot be overcome. Popkey’s unnamed narrator desires men who will tell her what to do. This might be an efficient enough thing to…
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