The London Magazine
Topics of Conversation, Miranda Popkey, Serpent’s Tail, 224pp, 2020, £14.99 (hardcover)
Strange Hotel, Eimear McBride, Faber & Faber, 160pp, 2019, £12.99 (hardcover)
A woman walks into a (hotel) bar. She decides to sit pretty, sweating into her shoes, the hem of her dress riding up. She wants a man, ‘handsome in a midlevel-hotel-chain kind of way’, to notice her, take her up to his room, tie her up and tell her what to do. She has come to the right sort of establishment. ‘I’d deliberately made myself a sitting duck’, the narrator of Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation tells us, ‘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’. Soon enough, one obliges. His suit and presence in the bar point in ‘the direction of finance, say, of midcap mutual funds, of generic business’, but his socks, tie and glasses point in the direction of ‘sense of humour, of reads novels, of was never in a frat’.
The woman is cheating on her husband. She lives in Marin, that purpled promontory that closes off San Francisco Bay, striving towards the city and linked to it by the Golden Gate bridge. The woman has got in her car, driven it over the bridge, rented a room in her own mid-level chain hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf (that touristy traipse of town beset by permanent clam chowder fog), and then walked to the new hotel.
Her husband – she is emphatic on this point – is a kind, understanding, gentle man. He is an academic and she has followed him from job to job. She never finished her PhD, partly because she was ‘dating a professor at the time. Sleeping with. That sounds like a good story but it’s not, it’s been told too many times’. Nevertheless, she sketches the archetype for us:
He had a beard and a jacket with elbow patches. I wish I were joking. Made good martinis, had hollow cheeks, explains the beard, hated his ex-wife. All pretty standard.
He also, as is, I am told, standard in many extramarital affairs, forbade her from calling him. He was in control of the time, location, duration and frequency of their assignations, and it thrilled her. In one way this novel is the story of the woman living in the long shadow of this affair. It partially explains her decision to marry a man whose compassion and patience she finds excessive, whose deferral to her she finds deeply off-putting. When she and her husband decide to try, and have difficulty, conceiving, she is repulsed by his gentleness in telling her it’s her choice if they go for IVF. She is left to get on with the decision alone, even though she doesn’t feel strongly about it in the first place: ‘I thought … if I made the baby an object not quite of desire but of obsession, I might be able to trick myself into liking a life whose comfort I knew even then was so relatively excessive as to be almost criminal’.
The man in the hotel, meanwhile, with his commensurate mid-level handsomeness, orders her a cheeseburger and tells her what to do. This is what she wants: the freedom of choicelessness. Feminism feels like the burden of choice, and she needs to be drunk before she can admit it to other women. And she ends up pregnant by this man. She gets divorced from her kind husband, heavily supported by her parents, who can’t really afford it, and living in California’s Central Valley with her son. As an outcome, it feels vindictively puritanical: wife’s waywardness is rewarded with a kid she doesn’t want and can’t afford.
The other parts of the novel consist, as the title might indicate, of conversations with other women: there are the stories of sexual assault by intimate partners, the relationships with unsavoury men, the thunderous realisation of one’s own lesbianism in a big box retailer. It recalls last year’s much-hyped Three Women (Lisa Taddeo) in scope, but affecting a greater degree of graduate gloss. Unreliable narration abounds, and there are Kundera-esque disquisitions on the erotics of secret-sharing or babymaking (‘Having a baby…. Is never ethical. I don’t mean it’s not, just it’s the wrong scale’). Some of these conversations share the same format: the woman who tells the story of her classmate’s assault by a grad student, or the single mothers musing on how they came to be where they were – both take place within a group, in a living room, with snacks and wine. (‘We did not call ourselves a book club’, the narrator tells us snarkily.) Nevertheless, each has their turn, telling stories first– or secondhand. Women shored up
on the sofa of a future unforeseen; Marlowe speaking to the moored. I was bored. Perhaps the most compelling part of the book was the list, at the end, of ‘Works (Not) Cited’, which detailed over a few pages, items as varied as ‘reporting in the New York Times about workplace sexual harassment led by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’ and ‘“Reading the Tarot”, an e-mail newsletter written by Jessica Crispin’. Few of them were obviously referred to in the preceding text, but their massed presence had a quiet impact at pages’s close. If only all books could include such lists.
Nights in hotels are the framing device for McBride’s third novel, Strange Hotel. It’s a bit like The Thousand and One Nights, but instead of killing her one night stands, she checks out, and the décor is more dated gilt and imitation Ming vases.
Hotels are an interesting arena in which to set your problem novels about female subjectivity. As the age-old division goes, women are of the home and men of the world. But what happens when the inner sanctum of the home, the bedroom, is transported to a high-rise block in the central business district of a city, and the woman with it? And around her, hundreds of other, identical rooms, and in each one, a person alone, many (if not most) of them men?
McBride’s protagonist is on the run from a love which bear not be remembered. Her need for the hotels is never mentioned, but the flavour is of a pared-back film, largely without dialogue, starring Catherine Deneuve: here she is in the ‘ineffectual dawn’, staring out of a window at a waking city while in bed behind her, last night’s stranger stirs. Here she is drinking 1.5 bottles of wine, falling asleep to porn, and waking to its loud frenzy and the realisation of paper-thin walls. Here she is asking for a light and pondering inviting the lighter-lender in, ‘the ongoing sub-conversational assessment’.
It’s the classic, genteelly imperialist and cinematic trope of White Person Pitches up in Foreign Country, Uses it as Backdrop for Their Inner Turmoil/ Great Romance/Significant Realisation: think The English Patient, Out of Africa, Indochine, Lost in Translation – Titanic, even. Gazing out of a hotel window onto the city below is the stock metaphor for an unwillingness to engage with the world outside yourself. There is the arrogance of reducing a foreign place to the papier-mâché stage-set for your billowing solipsism. I am disappointed: the sex for which McBride is so famed, the flummoxing
suchness of it, is irritatingly rationalised. This novel could have been a slice from the life of a middle-aged woman, travelling the world and casually shagging. Instead there is a reason: she is grieving the loss of her older partner, which means her sexual activities automatically slide towards the self-destructive in our present sexual value system.
There is a sometimes cluttered archness, too, which is a development from either of Strange Hotel’s predecessors, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians: ‘It’s merely her preference not to indulge mortality’s by now routine assaults on her carefully habituated ennui – a good word, ennui, so one-nil to the French’; ‘Too much ado, far too much ado about nothing, she curtly reflects’. Sentences like these are to the loss of Girl or Bohemians’s astonishing, pre-thought ‘thicky flow’ (as a nosebleed is described in Girl); the temporary donning of clichéd antiFrench sentiment, however convincing the impression, feels like a cheap trick from McBride. I would not have expected her to stoop so low. Of course, there are still the turns of phrase which stun (‘the vegetal bolts of her brain’, ‘the a.m.’s expected jump cut’), but reading these novels together I felt merely drained.
To be clear: I did also find Topics of Conversation clever, witty, and wry. But the cumulative effect of reading many of the biggest recent releases aimed at women has been to absorb the message that your sexuality is something externally defined, most often in terms of sexual victimisation, and if it departs from the norm in any way, there must be a reason. Raging grief excuses casual sex in McBride; childhood abuse excuses mild BDSM in Sally Rooney. Meanwhile Taddeo’s aforementioned Three Women merely repackaged abuse as entertainment. Of course I recognise the value in frank treatments of painful subjects, but I also want to read about female joy: against all odds, by all means, but also just because.