The Unintended Moment: Rachel Lyon’s “Self-Portrait with Boy”

Her black clothing, her big glasses, her Doc Martens boots, she says are a way to go unnoticed. On the other, she is thinking fuck you. She wants it to be. Self-Portrait with Boy is Rachel Lyon’s first book, and it is definitely far from being a lucky accident. 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. Sometimes painfully young and completely unaware of her own contradictions. 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. ¤
Diana Wagman is the author of seven novels, most recently Extraordinary October, her first for young adults. Lyon has drawn a wonderfully complex character in Lu, smart and observant, intelligent, shrewd and intense. She is also callous and condescending. Can something created without intent but merely by luck be considered art? But is it just the light? Rachel Lyon has given us much to think about. It’s just before gentrification and the building is filled with artists. 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 ending is terrifying and great. He has no money and inadequate health insurance and she takes on the obligation of paying for whatever isn’t covered. The photographer, Lu Rile, now quite famous, drives into Manhattan for an art opening. 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. Isn’t art first and foremost a choice, and photography, possibly more than any other two-dimensional form, about choosing to capture a singular image at a specific point in time? Is Lu an artist? She is the quintessential millennial: entitled, conceited, and oblivious of her privilege. Broke and in debt, she moves into the fourth floor of an abandoned factory in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn. MARCH 11, 2018
THERE ARE WHOLE BOOKS written about the philosophy of art and intent. It’s a lousy job with an overly zealous, New Age manager, and understandably she hates it. Lyrically written, emotionally complicated, and surprising in many ways, it is hard to put down. She gets a job at a health food store. 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. Commendable in her focus. 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. As Henri Cartier-Bresson discussed in the preface to The Decisive Moment, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
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. The artists that live above and below her, particularly the famous painter upstairs, are important to her. Does art need intent? On the very first page, a reporter describes Lu as “ruthless” and she dismisses it, but it definitely foreshadows her narcissism. 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. We know she will because that’s who she is, because she’s so ambitious and this photo is her ticket to fame. Diane Arbus’s photo of the skinny kid holding the hand grenade, Dorothea Lange’s image of the Depression-era migrant mother, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photo of the V-J Day kiss in Times Square, were all moments chosen by the artist that have become art. 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. Her self-portrait on its own would not be as interesting, but with the addition of the falling body it becomes something great. 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. This could be the moment. More than halfway through the book she’s still debating, “I hesitated. My south-facing windows looked out on the Manhattan Bridge, where day and night the subway trains would flicker by. How can Lu not tell her about the photo? Who owns that image? Lu Rile doesn’t even know the boy is in the photo until she develops it some time later. She has unintentionally created a terrifying and arresting work of art. His response is heartbreaking. The story is gripping, we hold our breath — will she or won’t she? She describes her current outfit and remembers feeling ugly in her 20s: “looking out at some horribly attractive crowd. The book opens 20 years after this event. 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. A single chance occurrence creates something out of nothing, and someone out of no one — but at an enormous expense. So is it art? This is a character who is hyper-aware of her own ambition coupled with the way she presents in the world. 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. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Paisley Livingston, and other significant thinkers have explored the nature of intentionality and its intersection with the artist’s process. But Adams and Drew absolutely intended to capture what they saw. In response she takes advantage of him and makes fun of him, as well as the customers and the other employees. It works. She will, but how will it happen and what will be the grieving parents’ reaction? How can she show a photograph that will destroy the boy’s mother? 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. “You don’t have to like the book. 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. I felt the wind flood in. 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. He can’t see, he’s never been to her loft, he doesn’t know her work even by description. 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. She travels home to take care of her almost blind father after cataract surgery. This scene begins her reflection on the tragedy and what it meant to her life — the substance of the story to come. It explores what constitutes success and fame and art. But the tinges of superiority and humble bragging never leave her voice. On the one hand, she seems appreciative of any scrap of kindness. 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. 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. 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. But he’s not a bad guy and incredibly lenient about both her absences and her attitude. Perfect moments to tell them about the photo come and go, and still Lu says nothing. The question is: What will she choose to do with the devastating image? 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. There is a surprising embedded ghost story — with an actual ghost. 1991: Lu had just graduated from art school as a photographer. Is it art? Her building, she claims, is what she can afford.