Let’s play a game. Let’s pretend you’re an aspiring photographer living close to the poverty line in a warehouse in Brooklyn. You work three jobs to support yourself, but no matter how hard you work, you never seem to make ends meet. Your high-ceilinged apartment is always infested with vermin, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. You obsess over an artistic project that no one seems to care about. And then your dad needs a surgery he can’t afford. What would you sacrifice for a chance at fiscal and critical artistic success? Your pride? Your vision for your work? The relationships with those around you? Would you go as far as to trade yourself for success?
Enter Rachel Lyon’s debut novel, Self-Portrait with Boy, an elegant and timeless morality play about Lu Rile, whose life and work are changed forever in a single moment of serendipity. Lu is a photographer living in Brooklyn in the early 90s. Her artistic project: take one self-portrait every day. On the 400th day of her project, she accidentally captures her upstairs neighbors’ son falling to his death from the building’s roof, an image that she soon finds to be the best photo she has ever taken, the piece that will surely land her an audience at the prestigious Cherrystone Clay gallery and catapult her to the top of the art world. But as she becomes closer and closer with Kate, the dead boy’s mother, Lu finds herself facing an agonizing decision: use the work to draw notoriety to herself and make money off of a tragedy, or respect her neighbors’ privacy and continue to live in squalor, poverty and anonymity? And that’s before she begins to hear a mysterious knocking at window through which she captured the little boy fall.
Self-Portrait With Boy has been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and on NPR’s Fresh Air. Rachel was gracious enough to take time out of her national book tour to speak with me about morality in art, ghosts, gentrification, life, death, and everything in between.
RACHEL LYON: I don’t know if art and morality are actually related at all. Art can represent a moral position; for instance the human being who creates it might behave morally or immorally in their daily life. Arguably this is the case for Lu. But I don’t think that art, in and of itself, can be moral or immoral. In the novel, Lu’s artwork is a kind of trigger, or inciting incident, which sets in motion a series of actions she takes, which the reader can interpret as moral or immoral. It is the jumping-off point for her moral trajectory.
LYON: Yes and no. I mean on one hand, it is anyone’s right to call anything art. Whether or not anyone will agree with you is another story. The question of what Art is—Art with a capital A—has more to do with context than with the object in question, right? If postmodernism taught us anything it’s that no object is inherently Art, even if it is powerful to look at or listen to or read or experience, but any object can become Art in the right context.
To take that question a step further, when we talk about art, we are also talking in part about value, and certainly no object is inherently valuable. This whole problem of the Artness of Art is determined by a system of external valuation, which starts with critical appraisal, and ends with a price tag. So Lu does have this sense of her photograph’s inherent imagistic power, from the beginning—and that power is real—in her mind or not, it is maybe even supernatural—but she knows very well that there’s no guarantee anyone will agree with her, and in fact the chance of people agreeing with her is pretty slim, because she is “an unknown,” as Fiona [the gallery owner] puts it. She is 100% outside the system of external valuation that makes these kinds of determinations. So on the other hand, according to the world outside herself, she has no right at all; she is pretty powerless. Her pursuit of Fiona’s gallery is a pursuit of evaluative context, without which she really can’t call the photograph Art.
LYON: Again, yes and no. Technically, legally, as I understand it, yes. If you take a picture of someone in a public place, you can use it without their or their guardian’s permission. Because Max is outside the building, which is a public space, if I’m not mistaken the photo is hers to do what she wants with. But, of course that doesn’t answer the question of whether she does the right thing. What’s her right may not be what’s right, so to speak.
LYON: I see Lu as a classic Gen X-er. In terms of her relationship to the world outside herself, she’s torn between affect and authenticity. She resents authority. She’s frustrated with her dad, who doesn’t understand her work or her ambition. She resents him for letting her grow up motherless. She resents him for being poor and, in her words, mediocre. She does care for him, even as her own reserves are running pretty low—they have no other family, really, besides each other, so they are very important to one another—but she doesn’t treat him with respect. She’s also kind of a brat—remember she’s only twenty-six or twenty-seven. So while I feel her motivations are pretty understandable, her behavior is reactive and childish. Meanwhile, her dad wants her to be a good person—and she isn’t, not really. Being a good person is not exactly her goal in life. So while there is real love between them, they are very different, spiritually and philosophically.
LYON: Kate is charismatic, beautiful, and gracious—everything Lu is not—and Lu is taken with her from the beginning. For her part, Kate enjoys how blunt and unsentimental Lu is. They are unlikely friends, but Kate is extremely vulnerable, and Lu keeps coming back to her, so they become close very quickly. Because Lu has never really been that close with anyone, their intimacy becomes extremely important to her, and even develops into real love—on Lu’s part, though maybe not Kate’s. Kate is used to being adored, so she doesn’t value adoration particularly highly, and there is this lopsided quality to their friendship, which Lu is hyperaware of. I really feel that through experience of loving Kate, Lu grows into more of an adult—but at some cost.
LYON: I think that’s funny, too! I wonder if in some ways the ghost flies under people’s radar. Or maybe they don’t quite know what to do with it, because in some ways he is pure metaphor. I think of him as kind of a meta-literary element: to be clunky about it, he represents her guilt. We know that, but we’re not sure to what extent she knows that. Lu is an unreliable narrator, right? She might be quite savvy to the metaphorical aspect of Max’s ghost. He might be a kind of convenient excuse. She might be manipulating us. Or she might be completely delusional. Or he might be real. He might be the actual star of the show.
LYON: Maybe. I am fascinating with the idea of spirit photography. While researching the novel, I looked at the spirit photographs of the Victorian era. There was this great trend of spiritual hoaxing going on back then. All this chicanery around séances and Ouija boards and spirit photographs and so on. I read about that a bit.
LYON: I’ll quote Franke, a character in the book. Lu says: “She was writing her dissertation on pre-Christian Netherlandish folklore—specifically moss maidens, which she said were a little bit ghost, a little bit wood nymph. I asked her, Do you believe in them? Do people believe in them I mean? and she laughed and said: It’s not really like that. Belief or disbelief. That is not really what legends are for.”
LYON: I was sure from the beginning that I wanted to write about DUMBO, because it is where I grew up, and basically the minute we left, it became a kind of yuppie Disneyland. I look back on that neighborhood with something like nostalgia—no, with something darker and more bitter than nostalgia.
I did do a lot of research. There are a lot of great stories out there about artists trying to defend their living spaces in the 1980s and 90s. And not just artists. You talk to anyone who has ever lived in New York; everyone has a story about real estate. But the way New York artists have fought for their housing? It’s really valiant! It seems almost quaint today. In this city the idea that affordable housing is a basic human right is almost laughable today, and the loss of that idea is a great tragedy, I think. Today the New York City real estate industry is this brutal juggernaut, which treats the human beings who live here as a kind of expendable byproduct. Developers are constantly building dozens of new luxury high-rises full of rentals that they know only the one percent can afford. It’s a case study in late capitalist greed, and it’s abhorrent.
Of course, on the other hand artists like my characters were not blameless. They routinely broke the law, squatting in warehouses that had never been zoned for human habitation, and refusing to leave, sometimes at great risk to themselves and their families. It’s not a one-sided story—which is what makes it interesting to me.
LYON: I am so grateful, and so gratified. I worked really hard on this thing, you know? I doubted myself often. I was easily demoralized. For years I made a practice of convincing myself daily, if not hourly, that the book would be finished someday. But that practice was hard, and I was very aware of the fact that even if I did finish it, the chance that the book would ever be published at all was ridiculously slim. Working on a novel is a lonely, maddening business. That it has been in so many pairs of hands at this point, and that so many brains have enjoyed it, is surreal and dreamy and weird and humbling and heartening and super exciting.
Just a few days after the book came out I got an email from a stranger. He was a father whose son had died, and he said that not only had he read and enjoyed Self-Portrait with Boy; he found that it accurately reflected his experience of grief. He said he and his wife had read a bunch of books that had to do with grief and none of them got it right, until mine. That blew me away. I am not a parent, and I have not grieved to the extent that Kate does in the book. That man’s note just stunned me. This is why I write. The empathic human imagination is a powerful thing.
Author photo by Debra Pearlman