In Rachel Lyon’s debut novel Self-Portrait with Boy (Scribner), the narrator and central protagonist Lu Rile accidentally photographs a young boy, Max Schubert-Fine, falling to his death outside her window. She calls this photo of pure, accidental genius “Self Portrait #400,” denoting the series she’s been occupied with. But it’s this particular image—this strange, haunting, and beautiful display of human tragedy—that sets in motion the novel’s primary question: will Lu Rile risk her budding relationship with Max’s grieving mother by exhibiting the photo in pursuit of her own career ambitions, or will she preserve friendship in spite of her art?
Rachel Lyon is at once a realist and a dreamer. The descriptions of 1990s Dumbo feel so tangible that you want to walk under the rain-slicked overpasses while listening to the Pixies’ Bossanova (the narrator indeed enjoys the Pixies, too). But between Lyon’s brilliant flashes of realistic prose, snappy dialogue, and brisk plot, is the space of dreaming: Lu Rile’s (or is it Rachel Lyon’s?) philosophical fixations and the slight absurdism with which she sees her places, and others’ places, in the world.
In many ways, Self-Portrait with Boy is a post-coming-of-age novel (Lu Rile is twenty-six after all), and is a recasting of the question what do I do with my life? to what do I do with my career? Just as Lu Rile cannot help but fixate on her possible decision we cannot help but feel ourselves judging her. Such is the stuff of complex character motivation, and Lyon is a young master of it.
Lyon studied art history at Princeton and received her MFA in fiction from Indiana University. A Brooklyn native, she has used it as inspiration for zany characters we meet and the gentrifying setting that houses a much darker story. We talked about art, ethics, and—in the words of Henry James—the “conversion into the stuff of drama,” which, in Lyon’s case, is her balance of aesthetics and story.
—Matthew Daddona for Guernica
Guernica: Your plot hinges on Lu Rile’s decision of whether to release a photograph, one of her many self-portraits. How quickly did the composition of that self-portrait come to you?
Rachel Lyon: I really didn’t have a mental image of the photograph itself until I was well into the book. The logistics of it kept shifting as I wrote: where she had to be in relation to the window, where the camera had to be set up in relation to her, and so on. I ended up making a series of sketches of the photo, really crude sketches, just to keep the composition of the picture in my head.
That said, even though I describe the photograph in detail, it’s important to me that it not be explicit, exactly. My own mental image isn’t, and shouldn’t be, exactly the same image you have in your head, or that any other reader will have in their head. For Lu, it’s this monumental work of art. But its actual quality, like the quality of any artwork, is relatively subjective. So it’s essential to the project of the book that each reader picture their own version of the photograph, the version that would seem monumental to them.
Guernica: I love the playfulness of your characters’ names. And the community they’re part of is filled with so much eccentricity. Is eccentricity a requirement of an artist?
Rachel Lyon: I think anybody can be an artist if they have an interesting way of looking at things and are adept at expressing it. From a writerly point of view, maybe we could come up with a list of ingredients necessary to cook up an artist character. But while maybe most artists would share a few of these common ingredients, all artists would certainly not share all of them. Chutzpah, for example, is a common ingredient in most of the artists in my novel, and it’s certainly useful for artists who want to get their work out there into the world, but there are a lot of artists we admire today who didn’t have any chutzpah at all: Henry Darger, Vivien Maier, Joseph Cornell. There’s strange or idiosyncratic behavior. But many artists move through the world quite easily, and seem utterly normal. Alexander Calder was apparently pretty sane and unassuming. To turn your question inside-out, though, from a writerly point of view I’d say every character, artist or not, has to be a little eccentric—at least on the inside. Otherwise what’s the point of writing about them? Nobody wants to read about Joe Normal.
Guernica: Can you talk a little more about the artist community you’ve imagined? Did you do much research into galleries and gallerists?
Rachel Lyon: My mother is an artist and my dad writes about art. Having grown up in a community of artists, I had memories and childhood impressions to draw on. I also worked as an intern at a gallery in New York for a few months right out of college, and then became an assistant at a gallery in San Francisco. Through that work I think I got a sense of what the art world was like, though I was certainly never any kind of insider. Sometimes I think it helps to be something of an outsider when you’re writing about a niche sort of world. It’s useful for perspective, and probably for a sense of humor. You can see things that people inside don’t have enough distance to see. Still, I got a lot of things wrong. When I was done with the final draft I gave it to a former professor of mine, who had worked in a gallery in SoHo in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and generously agreed to look it over. She corrected me on a few counts. My most glaring mistake was situating my fictional gallery Cherrystone Clay in Chelsea, when Chelsea in 1990 had very few galleries at all, if any. Back then everything was in SoHo. That was the kind of mistake only an outsider—and a relatively young writer—like myself could make.
Guernica: You majored in art history at Princeton. Was this the type of story you always felt inclined to write?
Rachel Lyon: No, I write all kinds of stories. I’ve written short stories about all kinds of things. A Midwestern woman in rehab for anger management. A conservative family coming to terms with a transgender child. I like writing about animals, too. I have one story about a tiny leopard, and one about a dragon, and one about an orangutan. But I do think I’m interested in characters who are creative in some way. I’m working on a new novel now that’s all about writers. I am sort of hoping someday to write a novel about scientists. But I’m not there yet. I need to work on my chops as a researcher first.
Guernica: Who creates ethics for artists, if they do indeed exist? Is Lu Rile following these rules or breaking them?
Rachel Lyon: I don’t think anybody does. As I see it, and people can disagree with me on this for sure, art can’t be ethical or unethical, moral or immoral. Art is outside of ethics. It’s an amoral pursuit. We tend to understand art more as a commentary on, or interpretation of, a thing—where that thing can be, I don’t know, an event, a behavior, a situation, a phenomenon, etc.—than as the thing itself. Very little art is understood simply as the thing itself, I think. Some minimalist work might be thought of as the thing itself—I think of James Turrell, Richard Serra, Rothko, Agnes Martin—but that sort of work can’t be understood in ethical terms, either. So if most art is commentary and interpretation, and the minority of art is just things, all art can be ethical or unethical only to the extent that it is made in good faith. The question of whether Lu’s photograph is made in good faith seems very separate to me from the question of whether she behaves ethically.
Guernica: There’s this wonderful conversation between Lu Rile and the headmaster of a school she’s applying to (which makes the philosophical tone of it even funnier), in which the headmaster asks, “Do you believe that art is a dangerous illusion, that art obscures truth?—or do you as Aristotle allow that by witnessing art the viewer experiences catharsis, which can be a moral good.” Could it be both?
Rachel Lyon: Art may be an illusion, and sometimes it may be dangerous, and sometimes it may obscure truth, and sometimes it may bring on a kind of catharsis, but I don’t think catharsis is necessarily a moral good. I feel like the key verb there, in the Aristotle, is can be. Art can be all of these things and none of the above. It can be a dangerous illusion or a harmless simulacrum, or a harmless illusion, or a dangerous simulacrum. It can obscure the truth, reveal the truth, or obscure lies and fictions—or reveal lies and fictions. Right? Art can be almost anything. Anything that is not primarily going to be used as a tool, and that is produced by the skill and imagination of the human brain or, okay, arguably not just the human brain, but also the brain of the elephant, gorilla, bowerbird, and maybe lots of other species, who knows, I don’t know.
Guernica: You refer to a lot of fine art throughout the novel. Were there any pieces that served as inspiration, or others that you discovered along the way?
Rachel Lyon: I came to the Brueghel later on in the writing process, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which Lu visits at the Met Museum early on in the book. I actually discovered it through the ekphrastic poem about it by William Carlos Williams, which my dad sent to me. It was really serendipitous. I needed a real life fine art reference point for Lu, to show the reader how easily (if narcissistically) she’s able to imagine her photograph fitting into the canons of art history. And I needed the reader to see how seriously she takes looking at art. That painting became a kind of touchstone.
Guernica: Similarly, the technicalities of photographic work are described. Obviously, photography is a tool in your novel for Lu Rile’s having caught Max Schubert-Fine’s death in real time. How does photography speak to you in your writing and in your day-to-day life?
Rachel Lyon: The short and hopefully not too disappointing answer is: it doesn’t. Really, photography is only important in this book because it’s a tool, as you say. It solves a logistical problem: how might a person accidentally record a moment as fleeting as that of a boy falling? The only possible way is with a photograph—or film, but I knew even less about filmmaking than I did about photography. Despite all the research I did for the book, though, I’m still just a plebe. I like this or that photographer. I like taking pictures and posting them on Instagram. But that’s about where it begins and ends. I’m the opposite of Lu, and I suspect a lot of writers are opposite a lot of visual artists in this way: I’m more of a fox than a hedgehog. Whereas she’s interested in one thing, very intensely, I’m interested in lots of things more superficially.
Guernica: I kept going back to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and thinking about the development of Lu Rile’s photo and the consequences posed to her social class. Have you read that piece? Any thoughts on it?
Rachel Lyon: That essay was a major factor in my making the decision to major in art history in college. We read it in a big survey course and I was blown away by it. It opened up a new way of thinking for me. I haven’t read it in years, though. What were you thinking about?
Guernica: Specifically, the duplicity of “aura,” and how on one hand Lu Rile’s photo is an unparalleled representation of Max’s fall, and on the other is the only representation of his final moment. I kept asking myself: would a thousand duplications of this photograph make the moment less real? Or would it stir in people a greater awareness of their own fragility, which, in a way, went beyond Lu Rile’s own ambitions for her work?
Rachel Lyon: That’s a really interesting idea. Probably both, right? I suspect that Benjamin is right, and the more an image is reproduced, the less meaningful it becomes. We can look at images of people jumping out of the World Trade Center today and not flinch, for example, but in the months and years directly following 9/11 it was very difficult to look at those pictures.
The reproducibility of the photograph was something I had to reckon with. In terms of the plot, it wasn’t really useful to me. This was a story about one image. So for the short term I had to really crank up the stakes. It couldn’t be easy for her to print multiples. It had to be emotionally harrowing, and costly. If multiple editions of this photograph were to end up all over, in the possession of different people and institutions, it would bring up all kinds of implications not just for the image itself, but for the ghost that haunts it. I didn’t want to challenge the subjectivity of that ghost by introducing the possibility of it showing up elsewhere. I needed it to be Lu’s ghost.