“I’ll tell you how it started. With a simple, tragic accident. The click of a shutter and a grown man’s beast-like howl.” With these opening lines, Rachel Lyon pulls us into a fast-paced and haunting narrative that dramatizes the friction between professional success and personal loyalty. When does art become exploitative? To what does the emerging artist owe her allegiance? To community? To love? To her own aspirations, and nothing else?
Lyon’s narrator, Lu Rile, is a recent art school grad living in Brooklyn in the early 90’s. She’s got big dreams and no money—a familiar combination, but rest assured, Lyon strips the starving artist cliché of all its tired romanticism. Real estate developers are closing in on Lu’s building, a ramshackle warehouse whose artist residents have been squatting for years. The landlord’s nowhere to be found. As Lu’s expenses swell (the tenants have hired a lawyer to file a suit for legal residency, and her father needs eye surgery), she finds herself working at a ritzy day school, a 24-hour Photo, and a health food store, and stealing from the latter because she still can’t afford groceries.
What Lu has in abundance: creative discipline. When the novel opens, she’s been taking a self-portrait a day for 399 days. The project is intended to be a study in photographic technique, “all while staying alive to chance,” and it is chance that finally offers Lu her big break. While taking Self-Portrait #400, she accidentally captures an awful thing: the image of a boy in the window behind her, falling to his death. This boy is Max Schubert-Fine, the nine-year-old son of her neighbors Kate and Steve.
At this point, Lu still doesn’t know much about the other tenants, but in the weeks and months following Max’s death, she’s gradually drawn into the building’s colorful community of artists. She gets to know Cora Pickenpew, painter of knockoff Rothkos; and Bob Maynard, master glass-blower; and Nancy Meister, the playwright with the FBI file. And Kate Fine: with Max’s grief-stricken mother, Lu develops a particularly intense bond, becoming her closest confidant as Steve Schubert withdraws, obsessively sketching images of his dead son’s face.
But what to do about Self-Portrait #400? If it were a bad photo, the answer would be obvious. But of course, it’s not a bad photo. It’s terrific. It’s the best work of art Lu Rile has ever produced, and it has the potential to change her life. Thus, Lu’s dilemma: exploit a child’s death for professional gain, or keep quiet about the photo that could launch her artistic career? As Lu’s guilt wars with her ambition, as all the tenants face increasing pressure to abandon their crumbling home, another dangerous force is brewing: a spectral hand slapping at the window, the ghost of Max Schubert-Fine hungering for his own lost image. “I could see him,” Lu tell us, “but what was more frightening was that—I could tell!—he could see me . . . He could see the photograph. He was looking at #400.”
Self-Portrait with Boy is around 370 pages, but the book reads quickly, owing to suspenseful turns, lively dialogue, and emotional entanglements that become more and more complex. Lu and Kate’s relationship is at once tender and tormented, bound by mutual loneliness and the suggestion of a burgeoning physical attraction. Steve is both unlikeable and highly sympathetic. The grief at the center of the story is allowed to be messy, to change shape. Kate struggles to articulate her loss, and to navigate the suffocating sorrow of friends and family: “I just want everyone to know: You’re okay. You’re all okay! Everyone is okay. Except for me.”
Though the novel savors its grimy details (a sink full of drowned rats comes to mind), at the heart of this work is love: love for Brooklyn; love for art, artists, and their tremendous resilience in the face of harsh changes. Lyon effectively captures the end of an era as she indicts the forces of gentrification that threaten the homes and livelihoods of the book’s main characters. This focus, coupled with the retrospective first-person point of view, gives the book a nostalgic flavor. It is a fierce and aching story, as much about the loss of a way of life as it is about the loss of Max Schubert-Fine.
Self-Portrait with Boy’s blend of sorrow, quirky characters, and surreal elements recalled for me Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but I enjoyed Lyon’s novel a lot more. The magical twists of Bender’s book left me mostly puzzled. By contrast, Max’s ghostly resurrection feels essential to the plot—a manifestation of Lu’s guilt that urges her to make her fateful decision, and soon. While Self-Portrait with Boy is a must-read for artists, Lyon provides enough scaffolding that even those of us with no prior knowledge of photography can feel invested in the protagonist’s struggle. At times I sympathized with that struggle; at times I was frustrated with Lu’s myopia and indecision. I found myself pondering my own preconceived notions about women who make art. Would I expect a man to torment himself over the ethical implications of his masterpiece? Do I want female artists to be “nicer” than their male counterparts? Ultimately, the fact that it raises these questions is part of what makes the book worth reading. With a vividly rendered setting, an emotionally turbulent narrative, and a spine-chilling dose of the paranormal, Self-Portrait with Boy has me dwelling on the dark side of creative expression and eager to see what Rachel Lyon produces next.
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Reviewed by Tessa Yang