Goodreads blurb: Endlessly inventive, intimate, and provocative, this memoir-in-essays is a celebration of the strange and exquisite state of falling in love, whether with a painting or a person, that interweaves incisive commentary on modern life, feminism, art and sex with the author’s own experiences of obsession, heartbreak, and past trauma.
Like a song that feels written just for you, Larissa Pham’s debut work of nonfiction captures the imagination and refuses to let go.
Pop Song is a book about love and about falling in love—with a place, or a painting, or a person—and the joy and terror inherent in the experience of that love. Plumbing the well of culture for clues and patterns about love and loss—from Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings to James Turrell’s transcendent light works, and Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet to Frank Ocean’s Blonde —Pham writes of her youthful attempts to find meaning in travel, sex, drugs, and art, before sensing that she might need to turn her gaze upon herself.
Pop Song is also a book about distances, near and far. As she travels from Taos, New Mexico, to Shanghai, China and beyond, Pham meditates on the miles we are willing to cover to get away from ourselves, or those who hurt us, and the impossible gaps that can exist between two people sharing a bed.
Pop Song is a book about all the routes by which we might escape our own needs before finally finding a way home. There is heartache in these pages, but Pham’s electric ways of seeing create a perfectly fractured portrait of modern intimacy that is triumphant in both its vulnerability and restlessness.
“It was the first time I learned to perform my sadness. It is a skill I have retained”
A while back I read a short story collection, Kink, and one of my favorite stories in it was by Larissa Pham, an author I have not heard of before. So when I spied her upcoming memoir in essays on Edelweiss, I had to check it out. It was a must. And I am so glad I did because I really loved this.
Pop Song is a hybrid between a memoir in essays and art criticism, which is something I am seeing crop up more and more, and it’s something that conceptually works really well for me. Larissa Pham writes in short, poignant paragraphs, often resorting to lists and fragmented storytelling, and that’s a writing style I am finding works well on me. This is a deeply intimate look at not only the author’s life, but also at her understanding of art and how she uses art to come to terms with something that’s going on in her life. There’s a particularly searing part in my favorite essay “Body of Work” where Pham tells us how she broke up with her high school boyfriend, but after pondering a series of paintings she loves, she questions her own memory, and finds that she misremembered that event. She then uses that to explore this idea of us making our memories sadder in order to make that sadness more visible, or to perform our sadness as she claims at one point. It was so smart and powerful and that’s the exact point I fell in love with this collection.
“Pain resonates. Pain is an unlocked room with the door shut: it paid too much to stay away from the source of it, so I kept walking in.”
I also really appreciated how Pham wrote about her trauma and how she writes about love and intimacy. Sometimes you just read something and it speaks to you, which is what happened to me with Pop Song. The thread that seems to bind her essays together is her relationship with her boyfriend, who is always referred to only as “you” and Pham explores her relationship from the initial stages to the breakup all along using distance as a way to contextualize her feelings and their relationship. That’s one thing I think she is brilliant at – she manages to really contextualize her feelings and thoughts through paintings and music in a way that feels really honest and authentic. She talks about her Tumblr blog at one point, and everything she discusses in that part is perfectly contextualized through the Tumblr culture. It was really remarkable.
“That there was too much inside me that made me ugly, and unlovable, and impossible to care for. I have been so many people in my life, and on my worst days, all my selves seemed stacked up inside me, too full to allow anything else in, like trash shoved in a compactor. I thought of myself as haunted.”
Another thing I loved about this collection is that it was so rewarding to explore the art that the author was exploring alongside her. I have not heard of most of the art she references here, because she mostly focuses on American artists, but I loved finding the paintings she referenced online and then reading her thoughts with them in the background. There’s a part where she talks about a demo of Wild Heart that Stevie Nicks sang backstage at a shoot for the Rolling Stone, and it’s absolutely brilliant, and I am so glad I discovered that through this book.
“This is my weakness: I rely on the language of the body too often, when I think no other language will serve.”
There are definitely some less strong essays in here, and some of them go too deep into art criticism for me personally, so for me, some of them read at times like a textbook, but overall, the collection as a whole was brilliant and I will for sure read anything Pham puts out.
Definitely could not recommend this more. If you enjoy nonfiction and memoirs in essays (like Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror), I highly recommend you check this one out. It was really beautiful.
I would love to hear from you – any thoughts you’d like to share? Let me know!
In the meantime, happy reading
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