The writer Will Self once defined the use of stream of consciousness in a novel as a stratagem “to try to get closer to the texture of lived life”. In recent years, more and more novelists have been incorporating the technique into their work, creating a deliberate ambiguity between author and protagonist in order to blur the relationship between autobiography and fiction. It’s not entirely new; throughout his career, Philip Roth published many novels built around his experiences in love and life, while more recently both Rachel Cusk and Rob Doyle have created fictional representations of themselves to great effect in the Outline trilogy and Threshold respectively.
Miranda Popkey captures 17 years of life in a debut novel that feels equally personal but, perhaps because she is a writer at the start of her career, the effect is not quite as compelling as in these other books. Certainly there are some brilliant moments on display, but too often they are undermined by a counterpoint of self-indulgence.
The novel opens in Italy in 2000, where the unnamed narrator is working as a nanny. Quoting Sylvia Plath in the epigraph, and then mentioning her again in the opening pages, is a neat way of establishing character, for Plath is an author widely read in the years leading up to adulthood. The voice is quiet here; she’s an apprehensive listener forced to endure her employer’s monologues while wondering whether similar dramatic moments lie in her own future and, if they do, how she will survive them.
From Italy the story moves between various American cities, the tone growing in confidence as she experiences love affairs, friendships, an unhappy marriage and a desire for children. Occasionally she seems excited by the possibilities that life offers but, to the novel’s detriment, she’s more prone to lassitude, coming across like an under-achieving twentysomething already jaded by the world, an effect that might appeal to readers of that age group but can be tiresome to anyone outside of it.
Some of the more interesting sections, however, explore our relationship to creativity in a culture where the emperors often have no clothes. In a section titled “San Francisco, 2010”, she visits an art installation but questions whether the artist should be admired for “claiming her pain is worthy of art”, or whether that is “indulgent, because she is her own subject”. It’s a provocative idea, particularly as that is exactly what Popkey is doing here. Perhaps she’s asking the reader to become complicit in the act, or is it that she needs us to validate her decision to write these stories even when they are not the stuff of real struggle but the bored choices of the privileged? It’s hard to know for sure, but her questions are worth considering.
In their debut novels, writers often have a tendency to try too hard, laying a surfeit of styles on the page in an effort to impress, and Popkey falls into this trap when the tone changes abruptly during “Los Angeles, 2011”, the narrator speaking in a strange staccato that feels affected. “Don’t like it, them, my parents. Talking about them, I mean.” Another section opens in an utterly pointless way: “I met Laura in graduate school, where I also met my husband. They were dating when I met them, Laura and my husband. My ex-husband. That’s not true. I did meet both Laura and my ex-husband in graduate school, but they weren’t dating.” Fiction is artifice anyway, it’s a collection of deceptions that we stitch together to create a false reality, but why write something, then take it back immediately? What purpose does this serve?
That said, Popkey employs some good lines along the way. She recalls the carpet of a hotel room as looking dirty on purpose, “so you couldn’t tell if it was”, and describes herself as having been “just close enough to wealth to touch the rotting lace of its hem”. At such moments, her nascent skills as a writer come across and one hopes that she will trust in this rather than feeling that she needs to indulge every eccentricity.
There is nothing in the book or in the copious acknowledgements at the back - when novels turned into Oscar acceptance speeches, I do not know - to suggest that these pieces were ever published individually, but the overall effect of Topics of Conversation is that there are some that one would be very willing to engage with but too many that leave the reader longing for someone more interesting to interject.
John Boyne’s new novel, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, will be published in July (Doubleday)