How Much Power Do Women Want? A Novel Circles the Question

In Fresno, in 2014, another woman tells her about a fantasy she had while standing in line at Home Depot. “I imagined folding up the piece of paper on which I’d written my desires and giving this piece of paper to my husband. I imagined forgetting what it was I’d written down.” She wants to deceive herself into forgetting her ideas are hers, so that life feels arbitrarily designed by someone else. The implication is as literary as it is personal: What control, if any, should a protagonist have over the outcome of the plot? What if she doesn’t want it?

In 2002, the narrator is getting her Ph.D. in “female pain in Jacobean revenge tragedies,” proving that even — or perhaps especially — for a woman who studies the feminist canon full time, verbalizing her own desires is still clunky, if not impossible. Chain-smoking on her way home one night, she muses on how problematic and yet how neat it would be “to be in someone else’s power … to be in fact prevented from making all decisions,” an appeal she concludes has “something to do with being chosen, something to do with release of responsibility.” She drills into how inherited ideas of sexual hierarchies seep down through some vague cultural apparatus and lodge themselves into us as “a certain cultural consensus about what women wanted and how men should go about giving it to them.”

Popkey’s sentences careen breathlessly as her halting, staccato prose mirrors the “churning” within the narrator’s mind — the pulsing interior dialogue, the em-dash-laden reasoning back and forth with herself. Narrative agency is what interests the author, her manner of parceling out information evoking at times the fragmentary and diaristic sensibilities of Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation.” Her style also conjures the rambling (and occasionally solipsistic) meditations on self-definition in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?,” and aspires to reproduce the rhythm of spoken communication in Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 novel-in-dialogue, “Talk.” It reminded me at points of Leslie Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” in which she emails some of her female friends asking their thoughts on the subject. Popkey’s novel itself is unabashedly “in conversation” with countless texts, an elliptical engagement that mirrors the web of thoughts reverberating in any one head: A “Works (Not) Cited” section at the end includes easily 100 references, from Renata Adler to an episode of “Mad Men.”

I kept thinking of a line from the journalist Emily Witt’s memoir, “Future Sex,”when a man at an “orgasmic meditation” session asks Witt what she desires. “What I said I desired was to surrender to another person without having to explain what I wanted.” In a recent feature on female artists in The Times Magazine, Rachel Cusk is told by one of her spectacularly successful subjects “that she has absolutely no idea of what her real desires are.” Analysis of a woman’s longing feels sutured into our culture lately. In the abstract, ideas on the subject lurk in the same part of my mind as platitudes about creating “strong female leads” onscreen, and a well-intentioned but preposterous pillowcase that says “Consent Is Sexy,” gifted to me by my undergraduate university. Popkey presents us with a shrewd record of the act of unflinchingly circling these amorphous notions of pain, desire and control, all the while quietly noting their clichéd contrivances in snarky, dark humor. I liked being inside her mind; it felt natural. She doesn’t arrive at a totalizing, liberated endpoint. The most we can do is listen to her story.

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