A compulsively readable and electrifying debut about an ambitious young female artist who accidentally photographs a boy falling to his death—an image that could jumpstart her career, but would also devastate her most intimate friendship.
Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet. Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that the crumbling warehouse she lives in is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation. One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy falling past her window to his death. The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made. It’s an image that could change her life...if she lets it.
But the decision to show the photograph is not easy. The boy is her neighbors’ son, and the tragedy brings all the building’s residents together. It especially unites Lu with his beautiful grieving mother, Kate. As the two forge an intense bond based on sympathy, loneliness, and budding attraction, Lu feels increasingly unsettled and guilty, torn between equally fierce desires: to use the photograph to advance her career, and to protect a woman she has come to love.
Set in early 90s Brooklyn on the brink of gentrification, Self-Portrait with Boy is a provocative commentary about the emotional dues that must be paid on the road to success, a powerful exploration of the complex terrain of female friendship, and a brilliant debut from novelist Rachel Lyon.
Rachel Lyon’s short stories have appeared in Joyland, Iowa Review, and Saint Ann’s Review, among other publications. She attended Princeton and Indiana University, where she was fiction editor of Indiana Review. She currently teaches fiction at Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, Slice, and elsewhere, and is a cofounder and cohost of the reading series Ditmas Lit. Self-Portrait with Boy is her first novel. Visit Rachel at RachelLyon.work.
Self-Portrait with Boy
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. The silent rush of neighbors down our dark dirty stairs. The lights of a police car illuminating the brick wall behind our building. And a photograph.
I never meant for any of it to happen.
Or no. Part of me meant for part of it to happen. I was nothing but a kid then. Twenty-six, naive, and ambitious as hell. A skinny friendless woman in thick glasses with a mop of coarse black hair. There were so many people I had not yet become.
An article that came out later, I have it somewhere, described me as ruthless. I didn’t know until years later what the writer meant. To me it was always about the work. Franke laughs at me because although my studio is in the garage, my art and its equipment insist on spilling out into our living spaces. Our kitchen table is cluttered with photographs. Prints hang to dry in the bathroom. By ruthless he meant single-minded. And sure, I’m single-minded. After all, I have only one mind. Still, I understand now that some artists look out into the world and some look in. I am interested in the limits of, the prison of, the self. I am more hedgehog than fox. I am more turtle than hedgehog.
In art school years ago I had a professor, a former opera singer. An enormous man, completely bald, with a rubber face and body. He could make himself into any shape at all. He taught performance. Part of performance was improvisation. I was not what you’d call a natural. I was stiff. I overthought. I did not have a lot of charm. When he told us, every action is a reaction, I puzzled over it for months. But when he said, an accident is just a change of course, I got it. He meant the grace in making art is being alive to chance. When you make a mistake, make it again, he’d say. There are only happy accidents. Isn’t that funny. Not funny ha-ha; funny strange. My so-called happy accident happened to be a tragic one.
I am not being flippant. Understand: the whole thing changed me deeply. Academics these days have developed an affection for the word trauma. The trauma of everyday life—the trauma of painting. It sounds good maybe but it is like vexed or problematic: overuse has leeched the word of meaning. I will say that now, more than two decades later, there is only one person in this world who is more traumatized by what happened than I am, and I barely know him anymore.
I did see him once a couple years ago. It was at an opening for my old friend Casper. I’d driven down to the city in my little green E30. I love that car. I’ve told Franke more than once I intend to be buried in it. She doesn’t think that’s funny. I think she wants it for herself. It was a rainy night, warm for December. The slick streets glowed. Almost immediately when I walked in I felt that old familiar chill, or something like it. Some memory of it maybe. I looked to my right and sure enough there he was. The same, but older. Same stocky build, same snarled ponytail—though it was more white now than blond. What was missing in him really was elasticity. Some tautness of the jaw, a certain power in his stance. He caught my eye and the expression that came over him was unbearable to me. In the crowded gallery the past came rushing back. The vile way he treated me. The pain I felt for years. Not because of him exactly, but around him. He was in that pain. And then, somewhere among all those larger, major memories, there was this minor but foul little one: the feeling of being in my twenties at a party and looking out at some horribly attractive crowd. The feeling of them glancing at me with barely registered pity: Oh, that thing in the corner. Isn’t that funny. It thinks it’s people.
I did not leave. I went to the restroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and breathed. The same but older, of course. What did I expect? We are both just a couple of overgrown, badly damaged kids. I had as much of a right to be there as any of Casper’s friends—more, in fact, because years ago I recommended him to Fiona, which put him on the map. I looked good too, in my way. Like myself: Lu Rile, five feet even in thick glasses, wild graying hair. A black silk jacket over a black shirt. Jeans and steel-toed boots. My uniform, my armor. I went back out and circulated, avoiding him.
* * *
The very act of recall is like trying to photograph the sky. The infinite and ever-shifting colors of memory, its rippling light, cannot really be captured. Show someone who has never seen the sky a picture of the sky and you show them a picture of nothing.
Still I have to try.
The thing you have to understand, the thing you have to keep in mind, is that Kate was my friend. At the time she was my only friend. She was so dear to me.
This reading group guide for Self-Portrait with Boy includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet. Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that the crumbling warehouse she lives in is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation. One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy falling past her window to his death. The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made. It’s an image that could change her life . . . if she lets it.
But the decision to show the photograph is not easy. The boy is her neighbors’ son, and the tragedy brings all the building’s residents together. It especially unites Lu with the boy’s beautiful, grieving mother, Kate. As the two forge an intense bond based on sympathy, loneliness, and budding attraction, Lu feels increasingly unsettled and guilty, torn between equally fierce desires: to use the photograph to advance her career and to protect a woman she has come to love.
Set in early 1990s Brooklyn on the brink of gentrification, Self-Portrait with Boy is a provocative commentary on the emotional dues that must be paid on the road to success, a powerful exploration of the complex terrain of female friendship, and a brilliant debut from novelist Rachel Lyon.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the opening paragraphs of the novel, Lu references an article that describes her as “ruthless.” A few pages later, she explains she was “hungry” (page 12). How did you react to Lu’s ambition? Did you find your own moral compass shifting over the course of the novel? Discuss the author’s decision to begin the novel with Lu looking back on the moment and why Lyon might have picked this structure.
2. The physical format of film is crucial to the plot of Self-Portrait with Boy. From the beginning, Lu explains, “If I’d had a digital camera back then . . . I might have just deleted it” (page 18). Waiting for the image, the monetary costs of printing, and how the image reveals itself to Lu greatly influence her decision. Discuss with your group the impact of the medium in the novel. How might this novel be different if it took place in today’s digitized culture?
3. Lu describes first encountering Max’s ghost as “more like an afterimage than an image. More like a handprint than a hand . . . simply there, static and lifeless but reaching, all of its curvature quite clear,” and recognizes that Max’s ghost is reaching toward her (page 105). This reach is followed by a “violent slap.” What, if anything, is suggested by Max’s haunting Lu rather than his parents?
4. Lu takes photos of mourners gathered, customers at Summerland, and her father when he is blind and recovering from eye surgery. She is never without her camera. Discuss the ethical implications of photography. How is it different from other artistic mediums, painting for example?
5. Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is mentioned in the novel and shares themes of death and falling; however, the painting’s primary focus isn’t Icarus but the landscape itself. Look up Brueghel’s painting and discuss the connection between it and the book.
6. One evening as she is having dinner with Kate and Philip, Lu is suddenly overcome with social anxiety: “And it was a friendship totally inaccessible to me, one I could not have with either of them and that maybe I could not have at all. I began to feel very much as if I did not belong, as if I were worse than a third wheel” (page 172). Discuss these thoughts in the context of Lu’s love for Kate, the photo of Max, Lu’s loneliness, and her need to be behind the camera. What does it mean to play the role of observer over participant?
7. Kate describes Steve’s new work as unlike the nudes he used to paint. Steve has instead been working on portraits of Max “obsessively” she says, “but the work was so much better than anything she’d ever seen him do before. What made it better was its utter lack of stylishness, of stylization” (page 173). Discuss with your group the role of grief and expression in art.
8. On page 110 Lu expresses fondness for the community she’s found through Kate: “Now because of my friendship with Kate I was no longer the weird little photographer downstairs. I was a part of things.” Lu places such importance on her friendship with Kate and her desire to belong, yet she betrays her so deeply. Discuss the coexistence of Lu’s love for Kate and Lu’s artistic aspirations.
9. The novel draws to a close with Kate’s suicide and Lu’s development of a meaningful, reciprocal romantic relationship. Discuss the choices that led each character to these ends.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. If you live in the area, pay a visit to DUMBO and observe how much the neighborhood has changed from the days of the novel.
2. Lu and her father watch Dead Reckoning, a Humphrey Bogart movie from the late 1940s, so Lu can get an idea of what her mother looked like. Get together with your group and screen the film yourselves.
3. Like Lu, artist Diane Arbus used a Rolleiflex camera—and like Lu she took many, often unsettling, self-portraits. Reread the epigraph that opens Self-Portrait with Boy and research Arbus’s own self-portraits. Discuss these within the context of the novel.
Lyon’s candid, adroit debut follows a young artist’s disturbing journey to find an audience. Lu Rile is a photographer squatting in a clapped-out industrial building in gritty 1990s Brooklyn. While staging a self-portrait, she accidentally captures a boy falling to his death outside her window. Although she has shot hundreds of images, this photograph is different, perfect. The boy’s tragic death creates a close community among the building’s tenants, mostly artists, and Lu becomes the confidant of Kate, the boy’s mother, who lives upstairs. Lu struggles to make ends meet and to find a gallery to represent her work, neglecting all along to tell Kate about her brilliant photograph. She manages to place it in an upcoming group exhibition in which Kate’s husband, Steve, also has a work, and tension mounts. Exacerbating Lu’s uncertainty about whether she is doing the right thing, she believes the ghost of the child is appearing at same window from which she captured him falling. But even this is not enough to push her to confess to his mother or pull the photograph from the show. Written in raw, honest prose, this is an affecting and probing moral tale about an artist choosing to advance her work at the expense of her personal relationships. (Feb.)
"The conflict is rich and thorny, raising questions about art and morality, love and betrayal, sacrifice and opportunism and the chance moments that can define a life. The novel wrestles with the nature of art but moves with the speed of a page-turner." -Los Angeles Times
“Striking...though it looks backward to the end of an era in New York, it's not at all nostalgic. Think the tough tone of something like Rachel Kushner's New York/Italian art and politics novel, The Flamethrowers, or Olivia Laing's atmospheric nonfiction book about New York, The Lonely City. Lyon's heroine, a young woman named Lu Rile who has just graduated from art school, is a bit like plain Jane Eyre, minus the moral compass...Self-Portrait With Boy is a smart novel about the narcissistic ambition that's needed to succeed, especially in the art world, especially in New York.” Maureen Corrigan, NPR
"Self-Portrait With Boy captures the furious beauty of a vanished New York, an irresistible whirlwind of passion, violence, love, struggle, and above all else, art. Rachel Lyon paints an unforgettable portrait of a true art monster—a young woman hellbent on pursuing greatness, no matter the cost."
—Robin Wasserman, author of Girls on Fire
"A confident first novel... The moral dilemma Lyon sets up is explored with intelligence and grace ... Best of all is Rile’s voice, snappish and self-aware and scared, taking on the world while being devoured by it, reaching out to touch the ghosts that float above the East River." Seattle Times
"Rachel Lyon navigates a spectrum of loyalty and betrayal like a tightrope-walker, with all of the attendant suspense. A life-changing moral choice powers this atmospheric novel which shows what can happen when you do what scares you most."
"A formidable novel, equal parts ghost story, love story, and riveting Bildungsroman. Full of big ideas about art and love and ambition, with prose so vivid it gives off sparks—this debut won me over completely. Chilling and beautiful, just like the work of the artist at the heart of the story."
—Julie Buntin, author of Marlena
“I read Rachel Lyon's sharp and achingly beautiful novel about art and fame and loneliness and death in a frenzy, full of a deep and urgent need. With this gorgeous debut, Lyon will unravel you and then stitch you together again as something entirely new.”
— Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories
“A haunting tale of how a singular, devastating event in the life of a young woman photographer changes the trajectory of her life and comes to define her utterly. Beautifully imagined and flawlessly executed, Self-Portrait With Boy will suggest, to some readers, the obsessive interiority of the great Diane Arbus, conjoined with an original and disturbing examination of the ill-defined borders between life and art."
—Joyce Carol Oates
"In her gripping first novel, Lyon sympathetically portrays Lu’s struggle." —Booklist, starred review
“Fabulously written, this spellbinding debut novel is a real page-turner. A powerful, brilliantly imagined story not easily forgotten; highly recommended.” Library Journal, starred reviewFrom the Publisher
When an ambitious young photographer captures an unthinkable tragedy—and creates an accidental masterpiece in the process—she is forced to make a choice that will define her future.Thick with the atmospheric grime of early 1990s New York, Lyon's haunting debut hinges on a single instant: the moment when recent art school graduate Lu Rile, broke and ruthless, sets up her camera for a self-portrait—the 400th in her series—and captures, by chance, the image of a little boy falling from the sky. The boy is Max Schubert-Fine, the 9-year-old son of Lu's upstairs neighbors, and now he is dead, having slipped off the roof of their building, a crumbling Brooklyn warehouse not officially zoned for tenancy. The building's motley crew of residents—all artists; who else could live there?—come together in the aftermath of the tragedy, rallying around Max's beautiful mother, Kate, and offering Lu, until now a loner, something like community. In the weeks that follow, Kate and Lu form an intense and complicated friendship, united in loneliness, held together by a flicker of unspoken attraction. But Lu doesn't tell Kate about the photograph of her son falling, the photograph that could—that will—fundamentally change the course of Lu's career, offering her an escape from both poverty and obscurity, a name and a paycheck. (God knows Lu, whose father is ailing, needs the money.) From its first sentences, the novel is hurtling toward its inevitable and nauseating conclusion as Lu chooses between her friendship and her art, a choice that wasn't ever really a choice at all. More than a book about art, or morality, it is a book about time: Lyon captures the end of an era. Lu, after this, for better and worse, will never be the person she was before the photograph. And as the warehouses get developed and the rents rise, the city won't ever be the same, either.Fearless and sharp.
While taking her self-portrait for the 400th time, photographer Lu Rile captures the very moment that her neighbors' young son Max falls to his death. When she enlarges the image, his blond curls and untied shoelaces are clearly depicted in the background. At the artists' loft in New York City where they live, all the neighbors unite to comfort grieving parents Kate and Steve, and Lu becomes close to Kate. She confides to Kate that Max haunts her, making tapping sounds on the glass and that sometimes she sees the image of his intact body coming through the window. Lu considers her photograph a masterpiece and with ruthless determination has it shown at a nearby gallery without telling Kate and Steve of her plan. "Self-Portrait with Boy" is a big hit, gaining favorable attention from the art world, but Lu's actions create awful repercussions. VERDICT Fabulously written, this spellbinding debut novel is a real page-turner. A powerful, brilliantly imagined story not easily forgotten; highly recommended.—Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH