Self-Portrait with Boy, Rachel Lyon’s fascinating first novel, is about a photograph, the artist’s intent, and her choice, but in an unexpected and compelling way. A photographer just out of art school sets up an automatic shutter to take a self-portrait and accidentally captures the image of a young boy falling to his death out the window behind her. She has unintentionally created a terrifying and arresting work of art. Her self-portrait on its own would not be as interesting, but with the addition of the falling body it becomes something great. Is it art? She wants it to be. The question is: What will she choose to do with the devastating image?
The book opens 20 years after this event. The photographer, Lu Rile, now quite famous, drives into Manhattan for an art opening. There she runs into the “one person in this world who is more traumatized by what happened than I am.” It’s an interesting choice to begin in the present. The clues Lyon drops don’t give the reader much information about the event itself, but what is revealed is Lu Rile’s own self-preoccupation. She describes her current outfit and remembers feeling ugly in her 20s: “looking out at some horribly attractive crowd. The feeling of them glancing at me with barely registered pity: Oh, that thing in the corner […] It thinks it’s people.” In this moment when she sees the man who was truly and completely destroyed by what happened, it is her own appearance that has the greatest weight in her mind — not the unbearable suffering this man has survived, but how he looked at her then and how he looks at her now. On the very first page, a reporter describes Lu as “ruthless” and she dismisses it, but it definitely foreshadows her narcissism. This scene begins her reflection on the tragedy and what it meant to her life — the substance of the story to come.
1991: Lu had just graduated from art school as a photographer. Broke and in debt, she moves into the fourth floor of an abandoned factory in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn. It’s just before gentrification and the building is filled with artists. Living there is not quite legal and the neighborhood is sketchy, but the views are tremendous:
Outside [the windows] that faced west were the Con Ed plant and rows of other warehouse roofs that stretched to the East River. The FDR Drive, where shining toy cars drove up and down the edge of Manhattan Island and the glinting jagged skyline above it, rows of towers that scraped the sky. My south-facing windows looked out on the Manhattan Bridge, where day and night the subway trains would flicker by.
It is Lu’s first apartment and the lack of heat or hot water, the rats and the junkies in the hallways, she considers all worth it for the light through those windows.
But is it just the light? This is a character who is hyper-aware of her own ambition coupled with the way she presents in the world. Her black clothing, her big glasses, her Doc Martens boots, she says are a way to go unnoticed. Her building, she claims, is what she can afford. But the tinges of superiority and humble bragging never leave her voice. The artists that live above and below her, particularly the famous painter upstairs, are important to her. She says she feels left out, awkward around them, can’t believe they actually like her, and yet, her observations of them are disdainful and it’s clear she would never live in a place less cool, less hip, just to have heat.
Then, completely by accident, she snaps this self-portrait, number 400 in a series, and captures the boy — the son of the famous artist upstairs — falling to his death outside her window.
Like the shot taken by AP photographer Eddie Adams at the moment General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoots the Viet Cong prisoner, or the heartbreaking photo by Richard Drew of the man falling to his death from the World Trade Towers on 9/11, hers is a picture of a person about to die. But Adams and Drew absolutely intended to capture what they saw. Lu Rile doesn’t even know the boy is in the photo until she develops it some time later. Who owns that image? How can she show a photograph that will destroy the boy’s mother?
Kate, the boy’s mother, has become Lu’s friend, confidant, and more than that: “I only know that being close to Kate in that moment in the kitchen seemed to open a window in me. I felt the wind flood in. I felt the drafts and canyons in her voice, experienced whole seasons in the chemical sweetness of her shampoo.” This is so beautiful, poetic, Lu is falling in love, but in the very next sentence: “I felt that window open and through its opening I felt a threat.” We see that this love is a danger to everything else Lu wants.
How can Lu not tell her about the photo? How can she use this photo to launch her career, pursuing the very gallery that represents the boy’s father, and not reveal to the family what this photo is? The story is gripping, we hold our breath — will she or won’t she? We know she will because that’s who she is, because she’s so ambitious and this photo is her ticket to fame. She will, but how will it happen and what will be the grieving parents’ reaction? Perfect moments to tell them about the photo come and go, and still Lu says nothing. More than halfway through the book she’s still debating, “I hesitated. This could be the moment. Nothing, I knew, would make one moment any better or worse than another.” And later, “I wanted to believe that would bring us closer […] I wanted her to see my best piece and to evaluate it. I wanted to be good enough for her.” Still, little by little we realize she is never going to tell Kate or show her the photo because Kate might say no.
Lyon has drawn a wonderfully complex character in Lu, smart and observant, intelligent, shrewd and intense. Commendable in her focus. She is also callous and condescending. Sometimes painfully young and completely unaware of her own contradictions. On the one hand, she seems appreciative of any scrap of kindness. On the other, she is thinking fuck you. She is the quintessential millennial: entitled, conceited, and oblivious of her privilege.
She gets a job at a health food store. It’s a lousy job with an overly zealous, New Age manager, and understandably she hates it. But he’s not a bad guy and incredibly lenient about both her absences and her attitude. In response she takes advantage of him and makes fun of him, as well as the customers and the other employees. She travels home to take care of her almost blind father after cataract surgery. He has no money and inadequate health insurance and she takes on the obligation of paying for whatever isn’t covered. It’s admirable for a girl who steals food from work so she has enough to eat, but when her father gives her a book of nature photographs — that he can’t see and can’t afford — she is awful to him, throws the book down and says, “This isn’t art, Dad […] This is bullshit consumer product.” She tries to tell him what she does is so much better, but he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He can’t see, he’s never been to her loft, he doesn’t know her work even by description. His response is heartbreaking. “You don’t have to like the book. I just want you to be decent about it.”
Her visit to her dad takes up a little too much of the book, and we are as anxious as she is to get back to her loft, the photo, and Kate grieving upstairs. There is a surprising embedded ghost story — with an actual ghost. It works. It’s just weird enough to make the reader question Lu’s sanity and then wonder if Lu made it up as justification for her cruelty. The ending is terrifying and great. And Lyon keeps reminding us from the very first chapter that no accident can ever be repeated — no matter how many times Lu clicks the shutter. So is it art? Is Lu an artist?
Self-Portrait with Boy is Rachel Lyon’s first book, and it is definitely far from being a lucky accident. Lyrically written, emotionally complicated, and surprising in many ways, it is hard to put down. It explores what constitutes success and fame and art. A single chance occurrence creates something out of nothing, and someone out of no one — but at an enormous expense. Rachel Lyon has given us much to think about.
Diana Wagman is the author of seven novels, most recently Extraordinary October, her first for young adults.