Hello from Tokyo! I’m stacking up reviews, so even though I’m still on vacation, I’m going to start posting some of them, so I’m not overwhelmed. I may take longer to reply to comments than usual, and I’m sorry I haven’t been commenting on others’ blog posts – I’m excited to read them all when I get back! I’m doing pretty well with 20 Books of Summer – four read, partway through a fifth – so here’s my first review.
Self-Portrait With Boy, Rachel Lyon’s debut, focuses on Lu Rile, a working-class artist in her mid-twenties, living in a condemned tower block in Brooklyn’s DUMBO – Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass – district in the 1990s, before gentrification swept the area. (Lyon’s vivid depiction recalls Ivy Pochoda’s treatment of a different Brooklyn neighbourhood, Red Hook, under threat in Visitation Street.) Lu makes ends meet by working in a grocery store, but all the same, she’s constantly on the edge; costs mount up as she has to pay for her father’s cataract treatment, legal fees as her neighbours try and keep hold of their building, and materials and printing for her own photography projects. And despite Lu’s commitment to her work – for example, she takes a self-portrait every day – she’s nowhere near breaking through. But when a neighbour’s child, Max, falls to his death from the roof of the tower block, Lu accidentally creates a masterpiece; having set up her camera to capture herself leaping in front of her loft window, she also catches Max falling outside. What should she do with this photo – Self-Portrait #400?
The blurb of Self-Portrait With Boy sets this up as a choice: should Lu make the photo public or not, especially as she grows increasingly close to the dead boy’s mother, Kate? However, this novel isn’t really about that moral decision: Lu’s pretty clear from the start that she wants to show the photo, though she struggles over how to tell Kate. Instead, it’s a disturbing description of a protagonist who’s totally devoted to the task of making good art. Most of Lu’s narration is incredibly detached from the world, although, to be fair, this is heightened by her exhaustion as she takes on more and more jobs to make ends meet, and as she struggles to sleep as her repressed emotions manifest themselves as Max’s ghost tapping on her window.
One confrontation with her father feels especially brutal and truthful. When he buys her a Christmas gift of an ex-library photography book, she flicks through it:
Glossy colour photos of young green forests and beaches at sunset. Waterfalls that had been photographed on a long exposure so that their cascades looked soft and blurred as mist…
I said, Dad, do you know anything about the kind of work that I’ve been doing?… It’s not like this, I said. This isn’t art, Dad… This sort of photography is created to numb the mind. The sort of work I do, and I want to tell you this so that you know, it’s the opposite. It’s meant to unsettle the mind.
He said, It was only a dollar. You don’t like it, okay.
I said, It isn’t that I don’t like it. How can anyone not like a sunset or a fucking babbling brook?… but looking at a picture of it? Why? Why? Who opens up a book to look at a picture of a beach? People who hate their lives, The anxious and the weak. This isn’t art, it’s fucking lidocaine.
It would be easy to condemn Lu for her harshness towards her ageing, poorly-sighted father, but I felt there was another reading of this scene; Lu’s father matters to her enough that she’s willing to be open with him about what she believes, rather than cultivating her usual silence. It would be easy for her to come out with platitudes about his gift, but would that really be an honest way to conduct their relationship?
Spoilers follow [highlight to show].
When Lu realises that she is a lesbian, and that her close connection to Kate is, for her, romantic and possibly sexual, her extreme austerity throughout the bulk of this novel starts to make more sense. Lu has fully disconnected from her own sexuality, and so when she begins exploring it with a woman she meets by chance at a museum, her narrative as it has been is over. How might she have acted differently had she been in love, and aware of it, at the start of the novel? Lyon sensibly leaves this as an open question, refusing to allow Lu to fully soften even in the moving closing lines.
This is not just a book about a woman coming to terms with how and who to love, but a book about a woman who puts her creative self – not her ambition, I think that’s unfair – above everything else. Literally starving, Lu knows she won’t be able to continue making work unless something changes – so she takes her chance. What I found really objectionable about her conduct was less her determination to show the photo, and more her cowardice in not telling Kate of her plans. One could argue that Lu is not a true artist – that her best work was produced by accident – but, on the other hand, Lu wouldn’t have taken her photo if she hadn’t shown up for work on the three hundred and ninety-nine days before Self Portrait #400 appeared on her developing film. Haunting, clever and original.
Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for both recommending this novel and sending me a copy via her blog giveaway!