Art harms, saves, and haunts in Rachel Lyon’s electric and idea-rich debut novel, Self-Portrait With Boy, released last month.
Set in 1990s DUMBO, in a former industrial building inhabited by squatting artists, Self-Portrait With Boy depicts both a neighborhood and a young photographer on the cusp of momentous change. In the course of executing a daily self-portrait project, Lu Rile, queer, poor and hungry for success, captures in the background of her shot the image of her neighbor’s child falling from the roof of their building to his death. The resulting artwork is a masterpiece capable of jumpstarting Lu’s nascent career, but it is also a time bomb, threatening to destroy her closest relationships, and pushing her self-conception as an artist to its moral limit. And most alarmingly, the ghost of the child wants the picture back.
Lyon’s sharply observed, character-driven fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Electric Literature, Joyland, and The Iowa Review. She and I met at her apartment in Crown Heights to discuss artistic communities, the quotidian nature of the supernatural, and hyper-gentrification.
The Rumpus: You lived in DUMBO when you were a child. Did that plant the seed for this book?
Rachel Lyon: I grew up in a building that’s similar to the building in the book. I lived there from the ages of three or four to ten, at which point we moved out—were forced out, really, by a landlord who, I assume, had realized that the neighborhood was growing in value, and wanted to sell.
There was a tragic incident in that building when I was maybe four or five: A boy fell from the roof and was killed. But I didn’t know about it at the time. I think, as children do, I soaked up something of the weirdness in the atmosphere. I knew something had happened. But I didn’t really find out the details until I was in my twenties, and at that point I became preoccupied with it as an artistic idea.
I was an imaginative, quiet kid who did a lot of reading and drawing and writing and playing the violin. I was kind of a romantic. I was ready to see magic everywhere. So I think that was another thing that I needed to write about: this beautiful space that I lived in, so far up in the sky and surrounded by light and water and these abandoned buildings.
Rumpus: In your book, the dead boy, Max Schubert-Fine, isn’t treated in a maudlin way. He has a life that’s reified in art. What are the ethics of working with a tragedy that you yourself were not intimately involved in?
Lyon: For me, it’s an idea. It’s a gesture, it’s an image—it’s an artistic and ethical problem to solve. It’s not just a tragedy. I can imagine people bristling at that, because it is a tragedy, objectively. But for me, not having known the family, having been too young at the time to understand, finding out about it decades later, primarily it’s material. The fact that this happened when I was so young, it almost made the romance of the building even more magnified in my head, because it was so tragic. I didn’t know the boy’s parents, and I didn’t really want to know too much about them when I was researching the book. I didn’t want to steal their grief. I didn’t want to be an asshole.
Still, I realize there’s a way in which I’m doing exactly what Lu Rile does. I took the exact same tragedy she does, and made my own art out of it. At the end of the day, artists are like jackdaws. We snatch up curious things in the world and make our own work out of them. We draw from our experience. There’s no getting around that.
Rumpus: Lu describes herself as “more turtle than hedgehog.” She views the world through this adversarial lens.
Lyon: I think of Lu as a very isolated person. She refers to herself as “skinny and friendless.” I don’t think she knows how to be a person in a community or a person in a friendship at the start of the book.
No one has any reason to pay attention to her, and she knows it. That’s true for all of us, but it’s particularly true for a young woman artist working in 1990, who grew up poor, without any connections. There’s a certain kind of artist I was thinking about, with her. It’s a kind of artist I feel I’ve been, and sometimes am. She’s very aware that she has no allies, and so she feels like she has to overcompensate for that. Here’s what she’s got going for her: she understands quality, and she’s aware of her handicaps, and she’s determined to overcome them.
Rumpus: One word you use to describe her is “hungry.” She has hunger for success, literal hunger as a result of poverty, hunger for human contact. It’s desperation.
Lyon: Yes—and from desperation comes shamelessness. There’s the scene where she calls [the gallerist] Fiona and demands she look at the work. It’s uncomfortable, but in Lu’s mind it’s her only option. There’s no other way out of her poverty and hunger.
One thing Lu never asks is: Am I a photographer? Or, should I be a photographer? Or, can I be a photographer? She’s never an aspiring photographer. She’s one of those people who just knows what she is. In a way, that’s what she means by “more hedgehog than fox, more turtle than hedgehog.” She has that kind of good fortune—or bad fortune—to have had her self defined and determined from a very early age. It’s not a question whether or not she’s going to be an artist. She already is one and is going to be one forever.
I have students who say, “I want to be a writer.” If you’re saying you want to be a writer, you’re not a writer. How do you get to be a writer? You write, of course. And then you say you’re a writer. You have to be shameless.
Rumpus: I wonder how that relates to an idea like authenticity. Lu’s lack of privilege allows her to make authentic art that isn’t mediated through money or the market or maleness—something that would perversely confer a kind of automatic credibility. I wonder if there’s a relationship between Lu’s class and the quality of her work versus someone who’s more of a dilettante.
Lyon: She’s a “real” artist. I’m saying that in quotation marks because it’s a bullshit thing to say, right? What makes one artist real and another artist not real? What I mean is she’s not making art for any reason except to make art. I think there’s room for many different types of artists to coexist, and that’s what I find so interesting about the idea of this building full of artists. There are as many reasons and ways to be an artist as there are artists. But in my mind Lu is the purest artist there, in the sense that her art doesn’t get her anywhere. She’s not using it for an end. She’s kind of caught by surprise by her own work.
The building I grew up in, there were artists everywhere. My mother was and is an artist and all my neighbors were artists. Art was like having an accent. Just like people talked a certain way, they also made art in their way. We lived next door to a quilter, and upstairs from a sculptor, and there was an architect down the hall who had these miniature scale models. There was somebody who made dioramas, which were fascinating to me as a little kid who was obsessed with dollhouses. I thought it was normal.
Rumpus: Did you bring a political point of view to the book’s depiction of gentrification?
Lyon: I have very strong feelings about gentrification in New York, personally. But this particular story seems pretty quaint compared to what we see now, with rents doubling over the course of a couple of years and people being completely priced out of their neighborhoods, and neighborhoods being transformed so quickly.
DUMBO was one of the first neighborhoods to be transformed this quickly. Jeremiah Moss uses the term “hyper-gentrification” to describe what happened there. At the time, it seemed like a scandal. There were articles about my building specifically in the Village Voice and the New York Times. It was the subject of hot debate! But in today’s terms it was nothing.
The 1982 Loft Law was not taken seriously by so many landlords. There were stories that would just blow your mind. I heard one not too long ago about a bunch of artists who were living in one of these warehouses in SoHo, I believe, and the cops kept coming to evict them and they wouldn’t leave. So they barricaded themselves into this building for a couple of weeks, and when the cops came to break down the doors, they poured buckets of piss on their heads.
Rumpus: The book takes place at a time and place that seems like the tipping point to the particular wave of gentrification we’re currently living through.
Lyon: That’s what Moss means by hyper-gentrification: it’s systematic, brutal, and conscious. It’s not organic gentrification, where a neighborhood over time becomes more and more integrated and new business start to pop up and people live side by side for at least a while, often decades, before the neighborhood becomes completely population two, and population one is not there anymore. This is gentrification where developers go in, kick everybody out, and remake the space and install their own funded businesses. It’s bizarre. They’re creating a neighborhood that didn’t exist before.
And as this kind of hyper-gentrification becomes more prevalent and regular old landlords realize that the market rates are rising and rising and they can turn over apartments at a higher and higher rate, people stay in one place for shorter and shorter amounts of time, and then the whole problem is exacerbated.
When I was researching this book, I went down to DUMBO and I did some tours of those buildings. In one of them, there’s a track around the roof where you can run, and there’s in-house laundry so you can put your laundry outside your apartment door and someone will pick it up and bring it back to you, and there’s a coffee shop downstairs, and places to sit and work, and a bar. You never have to leave that building; that’s the whole concept. It’s not an adult community. It’s like college. The people who live there aren’t patronizing their local businesses; they’re not involved in their community.
Rumpus: The ghost in this book is unusual. It’s never completely clear whether it’s there or a figment of guilt and the imagination. Have you seen ghosts?
Lyon: No. Well… Late in the book a character is talking about moss maidens, which are these legendary creatures, sort of like wood nymphs, and Lu says, “Do people believe in them?” And this character says, “It’s not really like that. You don’t believe or not believe. That’s not what legends are for.” So yeah, I have ghost stories. This haunted island I worked at, there were some ghosts. I had ghostly experiences. But it’s not like, “Oh, I can’t explain it, how spooky!” It’s like, “Who cares?” It’s not about whether or not it really happened.
I have this memory: I was out on the rocks with this guy and we were walking back to the hotel through the dark and we heard these footsteps behind us. So we went a little bit faster. We knew no one else was out there. And the footsteps got a little bit faster, so we started running. We got to the hotel and went in the back door to the kitchen, and we were out of breath and freaked out. And behind his head I saw a knife waving back and forth.
Did I really see that? I mean, I saw it. Does that mean it’s real? No. Do I believe in ghosts? No. I was drunk and it was the middle of the night and I had an overactive imagination and everyone else there had a ghost story. But I believe all of their ghost stories, by the way. They’re all true, you know? What I found fun about the ghost in this book is that the book is fiction. It’s Lu’s story. She’s telling it. Her word is all we have to go on. So who knows? It doesn’t really matter whether the ghost is real or not. What is a real ghost, anyway?
Rumpus: You write, “The best art makes visual a metaphor we live by.” I wonder if the same could be said of ghosts. There’s an elision between the ghost and the art, but there’s also art throughout the book that does ghostly work, making the unseen or unacknowledged tangible and visible.
Lyon: You could say the whole book is about repossession of things: of bodies and spaces through art and commerce, and the commerce of art.
I think ghosts are memory, and memory is imagination, and it’s all tied up together. We can’t escape our minds. They’re all we’ve got. I think the ghost is this collective touchstone, this collective memory, guilt and imagination. It serves a function of memory. We can’t conceive of death. Nobody gets death. There’s no way to get it, so we make these ghosts.
Author photograph © Debra Pearlman.