Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy is writer Larissa Pham’s first book-length collection of essays and nonfiction, following her debut novel, Fantasian. Pham studied painting and art history at Yale University and is currently an artist and writer in Brooklyn. She has written essays and criticism for The Paris Review Daily, The Nation, Art in America, the Poetry Foundation and others. Drawing from her extensive background and deep appreciation for visual arts, Pop Song is about distance and intimacy, a study of juxtaposition, using a “high-low” blend of fine art and pop culture to flesh out a nuanced portrait of identity, sexuality and artistry by a young new voice in art criticism and social commentary.
This collection feels like a seamless integration between two worlds: it is an artist’s diary, and it is a writer’s sketchbook, full of discovery and experimentation. On multiple occasions—sections such as “Camera Roll (Notes on Longing)” and “Breakup Interludes,” among others—the essays are fragmented, reading more like quick successions of micro-essays-within-an-essay, or vignettes moving to an overarching theme. This willingness to play with essay form was effective: I felt distinctly like I was walking through a gallery, being given a tour of Pham’s most intimate moments, sometimes with a high-definition photorealism, other times in broad and dreamy brushstrokes, deliberately layered one after the other. Pham’s use of language is deft, and she successfully delivers the beautiful, evocative language that is demanded by ekphrastic art commentary:
“A wider wash of gray, double the height of the other bands but the same shade, stretches in the middle between them. The paint retains her characteristic thinness, but it’s been applied in broad, almost drippy strokes, which ripple across the canvas; they have the feel of a stormy sea, or incoming rain clouds.”
When the subject matter (paintings and photographs) is itself already so beautiful, the language must be that much more precise and that much more vibrant in order to translate a work of visual art into a second, different (and non-visual) medium. Pham excelled in this, in conjuring the essence of a painting without actually showing us the painting. She pushes further still, guiding us gently deep into the heart of the work, looking for the life and spirit of the artist residing there.
“Unlike my problem with the sky—which resisted representation—Martin dispenses with mimesis altogether. After all, why paint the sky when the sky itself is a stand-in, when you can instead paint the feeling you get when you look at the world and realize there’s so much beauty in it that you haven’t seen yet?”
Pham’s essays tie multiple visual works together, set against the vibrant backdrop of her own life—through her travels, whether staying with family in New Mexico, or a summer art program in France, or a copywriting-related trip to Shanghai. Pham chronicles her relationship with lovers as well as with herself—explorations of pleasure and pain, anxiety and serenity, loneliness and love. At the core of it all is Pham’s appreciation and adoration of the beauty of the human body, juxtaposed painfully and poignantly with the trauma Pham’s own body has endured, as a survivor of rape, and, more generally, the everyday trauma of living and working as a young Vietnamese woman in a society designed to harm bodies like hers. We are given a glimpse into the world of Western art and academia through the perspective both afforded and complicated by Pham’s own layered political identity:
“I knew that I was there to run the program smoothly, whether that meant helping a student call home, or ensuring we’d made arrangements for our meals, or tracking the program’s finances, or doing the time sheets that meant Paul and Jamie and Sam and I got paid—I knew it was all that, and more of it, but it was an invisible, feminized labor that everyone around me seemed to take for granted. I was overworked and undervalued.”
This book may be especially fitting for readers who enjoy ekphrastic writing; it may be a favorite among fans of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, particularly regarding themes of sex, destruction, and the body; and it may be for those who are fans of essayist Jia Tolentino, looking to explore more cultural critique through the lens and gaze of a young Asian woman. In a more general sense, this collection is a welcome read for anyone who is looking for a writer who refuses to apologize, hide, or shrink, a writer who sees the world and, at the same time, demands that the world see her.