Fiction

What Women Want | Public Books

In the months after #MeToo caught fire, my conversations with friends failed the Bechdel Test. We set aside our usual topics and talked instead about men. We considered old events in the new light. Remember that boss? That boyfriend? That professor? Anger propelled these conversations, but it didn’t circumscribe them. We listened, we sympathized, we reflected, we disagreed. Mostly, we asked questions: Why is this reckoning only happening now? How should these men be punished? What about “innocent until proven guilty”? Are we—especially we who engage in intimate relationships with men—denying ourselves sexual agency?

Women talking about the consequences of male behavior is now the subject of two novels: Topics of Conversation, Miranda Popkey’s widely praised debut, and Women Talking, by feted Canadian author Miriam Toews. Although the two novels are set in vastly different social worlds—Popkey focuses on white, college-educated American women; Toews writes about the illiterate female members of a conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia—they are united by their interest in understanding the ways women respond to their subordination. Both works use private conversations between women who deal with men in intimate settings to examine enduring, if only more recently visible, feminist concerns: What do women want, and how can they get it?

The two books offer divergent answers. In doing so, they clarify issues that the #MeToo movement exposed as urgent. These novels underscore the need to collectively restate our commitment to the most basic, yet still unfulfilled, goals of feminism: the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. But while Women Talking offers a blueprint for a just future, Topics of Conversation reveals what is at stake if we lose sight of our objectives. Next to Toews’s impassioned reminder that women remain desperate for freedom from violence and for basic control over their lives, Popkey’s insistence on women’s desire for subjugation is misguided at best, and reactionary at worst.


In response to the never-ending parade of predators, #MeToo stories have emerged across many forms of cultural production: documentaries (Surviving R. Kelly, Lorena, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator), movies (The Tale, Bombshell), television (The Morning Show, Dietland, GLOW, The Good Fight, Tuca and Bertie), and podcasts (Catch and Kill, Chasing Cosby). Many of these reignite rage at old abuses, but they also deepen our understanding of power imbalances between genders.

There is also a growing collection of “#MeToo novels,” including Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, Kate Walbert’s His Favorites, Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew, and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa. Each of these works distinguishes itself from the centuries-old tradition of novels about sex, power, and sexual violence (Clarissa, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Lolita) by refracting these issues through the eyes of women. These new novels take the all-too-familiar misconduct of men as their launching point but focus their attention on the emotional consequences for women. These are novels about reflection and recalibration—in them, women’s past decisions are reweighed, their former relationships are reevaluated, and their once-steadfast beliefs are overturned—but they each reaffirm the importance of female freedom and agency. They are fundamentally feminist novels.

As critic Parul Sehgal recently argued, fiction is able to explore the thorny ethical issues of #MeToo with the nuance they deserve. While many nonfiction accounts tend to be strident and moralizing, novels (and other fictional genres like movies and television) are able to contemplate the intricacies of individual relationships. Even while they disavow one-size-fits-all judgments, novels help us clarify our convictions. Reeling from the black-and-white didacticism typical of nonfiction, critics like Sehgal have reveled in fiction’s capacity for equivocation. For the most part, they are right. But Topics of Conversation reveals that, unless it is undergirded by fundamental feminist principles, equivocation has its limits.

Popkey’s Topics of Conversation follows an unnamed narrator from her early 20s to her late 30s, through graduate school, marriage, divorce, paralegal work, single motherhood, alcoholism, and rehab. Almost every chapter focuses on a woman telling a story about a man. Often, the narrator mostly listens. These chapters, each marked by place and year, are linked by theme rather than event. Dialogue dominates; plot is sparse. It is, as Popkey has admitted, a rip-off of Rachel Cusk.

As in other #MeToo novels, Popkey’s female characters are grappling with relationships from their past. Violence against women is ubiquitous: an Argentinian psychoanalyst recounts being raped by her first husband, a graduate student recalls a man who used to serially prey on younger women, the narrator describes an ambiguously consensual but unambiguously violent encounter with a stranger in a hotel room, an older woman remembers the night Norman Mailer stabbed his wife.

The subjects of Topics of Conversation are sex and power, but Popkey is most interested in the nature of female desire, particularly the desire to relinquish agency. In this, the novel might best be understood as a retort to the received wisdom of the recent, critically lauded fictional and nonfictional #MeToo narratives.

Rather than fixate on the trauma caused by these encounters, Popkey wants to interrogate the illicit thrills women get from them. About her ex-husband’s violence, the psychoanalyst says, “What I felt was relief. Relief and also excitement.” When the narrator recounts her undergraduate affair with a married professor, in which he had absolute control, she muses, “I liked not having to decide.” After hearing another character recount her memory of being at a party when a male graduate student raped a drunk female undergraduate, the narrator finds herself longing to experience the victim’s total lack of agency. A representative stream of consciousness follows:

but also wasn’t there, beneath the details, something—to be overwhelmed, to have no choice in the matter, wasn’t there something—Obviously not if you were drunk. Obviously not your first time. Obviously not if you didn’t, somewhere deeper, somewhere—less acceptable and so less accessible, really want it. But no, that was what they said, what rapists said, that the girl, the woman, had really wanted it. So no, in addition, there would—I mean there would have to be some kind of understanding, it couldn’t be just the man’s—But if there was. I mean, mightn’t it, couldn’t it—To be in someone else’s power, not to have to make decisions, to be in fact prevented from making all decisions except where to move your—in fact maybe those decisions also were being made for you so that … Something to do with being chosen, something to do with release of responsibility. Could what the graduate student did be wrong and what I sometimes felt I wanted also be right.

The point, in case you were wondering, is that female desire is fucked-up too. Women, you see, sometimes want to relinquish control, choice, power. Taken on their own, some of Popkey’s observations about individual psychology are provocative, if not altogether novel. (As writer Sarah Resnick observes in a review of the novel, representations of privileged white women who crave submission are flourishing right now.)

But too often, Popkey uses the idiosyncratic sexual inclinations of a few women, all of whom are from the same culture and class, to clumsily fashion a universal theory of female desire. As a result, Topics of Conversation often feels less like a novel and more like sophomoric philosophy. This is partly because despite the multiplicity of speakers, the novel is, in effect, univocal. What at first seems to characterize the narrator’s style—a series of verbal tics (“I mean,” “anyway,” “as in,” “quote-unquote,” “not that,” “not because”); an overreliance on cultural references; sentences dismembered by commas and em dashes; sentences robbed of verbs—appears in the direct speech of almost every other character. The contrived style isn’t just distracting and tiresome, it also flattens characters. Women in this novel don’t emerge as individuals but as indistinguishable members of a chorus with a point to make. They are also united by their desires: they want to relinquish control; they are attracted to ugly, old, cruel men; they are repulsed by kind men; they thirst for violence in the bedroom. Most of all, they hate having to make choices.

Depressingly, many reviewers of Topics of Conversation have commended Popkey for her brave examination of transgressive female sexuality. The overwhelming feeling one gets from reading both the novel and the positive reviews it garnered is that we should not simply acknowledge but also embrace the perversity of female desire. In this view, a woman should have the right to want whatever she wants. If she happens to want submission, we should defend it.

This should not be mistaken for feminism. In fact, it is relativism. As philosopher Amia Srinivasan reminded us recently, a true feminist politics must criticize desire. It isn’t enough to acknowledge the full range of desires, or even how they are shaped; we must distinguish desires that are worthy and those that should be extinguished. Some are not the building blocks of a more equal world. Topics of Conversation reveals the limits of Sehgal’s claim that “the best of these books are heretical where narratives of sexual violence are concerned.” We need heresies to challenge our dogmas, but to relinquish the distinction between freedom and submission is to win the battle and lose the war.

too often, Popkey uses the idiosyncratic sexual inclinations of a few women, all of whom are from the same culture and class, to clumsily fashion a universal theory of female desire.

Miriam Toews’s Women Talking also explores power, agency, and sexual violence through conversations between women. (She composed the book before 2017, but it has been lauded as a “Mennonite #MeToo novel.”) The book is based on horrific true events: between 2005 and 2009, female members of a conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia were plagued by “mysterious night-time disturbances.” They were told these attacks were the work of ghosts and demons; punishment for their sins. Then the truth emerged: eight men had used a cow anesthetic to drug and rape over three hundred girls and women. Women Talking imagines the meetings that took place over the two days after the men have left the colony to bail out the rapists.

The women are debating a proposition: Should they stay and fight or should they leave? (Staying and doing nothing, they have already agreed, is not an option.) Pros of staying: We won’t have to leave, we won’t have to pack. Cons: We won’t be forgiven, we don’t know how to fight, we don’t want to fight. Staying seems untenable (the women are committed to the pacifism of their faith), so the conversation turns to the practical issues of leaving, like what they must pack and which of their male children they should leave behind.

Unlike Popkey’s cast of homogeneous middle-class female characters, the Mennonite girls and women of Women Talking have distinctive personalities. Salome, “a puzzling contradiction, defiant yet traditional, combative and rebellious,” struggles to contain her murderous rage. (The men attacked her three-year-old daughter and left her with an STI; Salome had to walk 12 miles for antibiotics.) With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–esque buffoonery, Metje and Netje commit minor acts of rebellion like regular teenagers. In a conservative Mennonite colony, that means rolling down their socks and secretly listening to the music playing from the census truck. Greta Loewen, a grandmother known for groan-worthy stories about her horses, shocks even the teenagers when she declares she is no longer a Mennonite. Mariche, whose internalization of her abusive husband’s misogyny manifests as insults directed at others, is capricious and strong-willed. And then there is Ona, who is capable of sympathy that beggars belief: she asserts that her rapist (who is the father of her unborn child) was “innocent and loveable” when he was born. Ona emerges as a sort of philosopher king—calm, wise, compassionate.

In their fierce, rigorous debate about practical matters, the Mennonite women contemplate profound questions: Should crimes be punished? Who has the right to forgive? What kind of forgiveness counts? What does it mean to be faithful? What are we fighting for? What world do we want for our daughters? What are our rights? In answer to this final question, Ona devises a revolutionary statement:

Men and women will make decisions collectively. Women will be allowed to think. Girls will be taught to read and write. The schoolhouse must display a map of the world so that we can begin to understand our place in it. A new religion, extrapolated from the old but focused on love, will be created by the women of Molotshcna.

These women want freedom, safety, and agency. They want the dignity of choice.


In Topics of Conversation, women seem capable only of negative emotions toward one another (envy, resentment, loathing), or else pseudo-erotic attraction. Friendship, empathy, and solidarity are beyond reach. The narrator’s physical descriptions of other women veer from cruel (another Cuskian inheritance) to voyeuristic. Bewilderingly, in both sets of instances, breasts and nipples often feature. Popkey’s vision of men is as diminished as her vision of women: they are either violent sadists or agreeable idiots.

On the topic of men, too, Toews offers a more expansive understanding of human behavior. The minute taker for the women’s meetings, and the narrator of the novel, is a man called August Epp, an outcast schoolteacher who is newly returned to the colony after years in England. Toews’s decision to use August as narrator is ingenious. It constantly reminds us of the subjugation of the women—they are illiterate—and also lets us view the events through the eyes of a tremendously sensitive man who has both an insider’s knowledge and an awareness of the world outside.

Despite the unthinkable acts that men have committed, Women Talking refuses to demonize even the perpetrators. When Salome declares that men prevent women from achieving freedom and safety, another female member of the colony, Mejal, corrects her: “But not all men.” Ona offers a reconciling alternative: “Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.” Men, too, are casualties of the patriarchy, their actions warped by their circumstances. Here, Toews offers another valuable lesson, one that the fury ignited by the horrors of #MeToo has understandably made difficult to remember: criminals, even those who commit the most heinous acts, are made not born. Today, this is a radical vision.

Above all, Toews also offers a generative vision of women’s lives under patriarchy. Her female characters argue fiercely, sometimes rancorously, but their fights are underwritten by compassion and geared toward a shared purpose. We see this in gestures of physical tenderness at times of heightened emotion—a daughter rubbing her mother’s swollen feet, an aunt braiding her niece’s hair, a woman “breathing sweetness, peace, into the mind of her angry sister”—but also in the way they rally around their common goal. Even the two women who are most at odds, August notes, “always come together as a united force during crises.” It’s a vision of solidarity strong enough to withstand disagreement. This is the feminist future we should want.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

Featured image: Rooftop Hangout (2017). Photograph by Jorge Flores / Unsplash

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