Somewhere near the middle of Larissa Pham’s memoir-in-essays, Pop Song, she starts a piece, “What we say without saying,” with a simple statement. “There’s a recording of James Blake covering Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ live, on a BBC radio show, from February 2011,” she tells us. She goes on to describe Blake’s vulnerability in the performance, and the timbre of his voice. It’s not the first time we feel the power of her description, its flexibility in rendering the intricacies of a song or the surface of a canvas. But I experienced this passage differently. I had been somewhat familiar with some of the artists featured throughout Pop Song – Agnes Martin, Yayoi Kusama, and Louise Bourgeois among them – and would like to think I held my own amidst the seemingly endless sea of cultural references. But I hadn’t had as strong an affinity to any of them as I had to Blake’s cover of Mitchell, which had been a favorite of mine since I first heard it in my sophomore year of college. I felt a closeness in reading Pham’s writing then; learning how the song affected her made me momentarily aware – as Pham later describes – of a “phenomena, so separate and articulable… how the emotional language I found myself developing so often seemed to be shared with others. The universal and the particular.”
Not two pages into the essay, however, we leave Blake. We leave the music, which holds “a moment of such pure feeling that it’s almost painful to listen to,” and are brought back to the personal, following Pham separating from her lover to attend a residency in Taos. She obsesses over her lover’s sweatshirt. Again, the universal; the particular.
This shift from Blake to Taos exemplifies a structure, alternating between more distanced criticism and personal narrative, that is ubiquitous in personal essays. At its worst, it creates a frustrating experience, leaving seemingly unrelated threads hanging, lurching between them, and generating a false sense of intrigue in the reader as they wait for everything to come together. Though there are moments in Pop Song that might veer toward this direction, Pham is able to elide frustration and convince the reader to trust her in telling her own story. One example of how this trust is established is in the choice of the first essay, “On Running.” Focusing on Pham’s compulsion to run and exploring her motivations, the essay is one of Pop Song’s most straightforward and least esoteric sections. The essay eases us in with physical details to inhabit, like a “yank at the laces”, or a “swipe at my phone screen”. It also introduces the second person address which Pham uses throughout, which has the disarming effect of pulling the reader close, even as we know she is referring to a specific, other, “you”:
It’s an interesting effect; we simultaneously feel we are being spoken to, privately, and that these words were not meant for us. Alongside the softness and intimacy that comes through these passages, there is also real drama. We want to know to whom she’s speaking; we want to know how things worked out.
This unifying motion, together with Pham’s singular voice, hold together Pop Song as it moves seamlessly from criticism to memoir, from Arizona to Shanghai, from Tumblr to Roland Barthes. The ability to navigate conventionally lowbrow and highbrow topics, as well as the structure of the work itself, might lead some to compare Pop Song to Jia Tolentino’s essay collection, Trick Mirror. But there’s a different quality to Pham’s voice; while Tolentino reads as somewhat uncertain, always needing to return to the northstar of her values and expound on her potential complicity in violating them, Pham never goes that far on the page. She spends only a short moment in “Body of Work,” expressing how she regrets aestheticizing her trauma: “It was a way to make sense of a thing I found lived inside me, but I regret trying to accept it by making it beautiful.” And while there is clearly self-awareness – Pham has an intense, deep understanding of her past self – she never seems to question her behavior. Rather, she simply accepts her nature. “I’m always trying to get somewhere else,” she tells us in “On Running,” for example. “It doesn’t matter where I’m going, only that I’m going, and that, eventually, I hope to be gone.”
Rather than feeling this as a lack, however, I found myself incredibly grateful for Pham’s assuredness. Looming in the background at various points throughout Pop Song are the pandemic, the Trump administration, and Pham’s stressful, difficult work at an anti-violence non-profit. Yet Pham never wonders whether the pursuit and practice of art are worthwhile in the face of these material concerns. She feels no need to convince the reader of art’s importance, or her story’s. Their importance is a given. The certainty with which Pham explores the aesthetic and sentimental, coupled with her undeniable power of observation, have created in Pop Song a sort of testament to a life focused around beauty and feeling. It evoked a sensation in me I hadn’t felt since Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel; just two essays in, I was already thinking of a friend for whom the book could be not merely enjoyable but potentially instructive, paradigm-shifting. Part memoir, part theory, part criticism, part break-up album, Pham has written the sort of book I wish I’d had when I was younger. Either way, I’m grateful it’s found me now.
Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called Canandaigua. He’s written short fiction for Maudlin House, non-fiction for The Rumpus, and is a student at the Writer’s Studio. He lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.