Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

“Tragedy is insignificant, banal. A falling boy goes largely unnoticed.”

Self-Portrait with Boy is an electrifying debut novel. Within its pages, Rachel Lyon’s paints an unsettling portrait, that of the artist as a young woman, one whose raw hunger for artistic recognition drives her to betray the trust of the person she loves. Self-Portrait with Boy presents us with a thought-provoking and razor-sharp interrogation of ambition, morality, love, and the fraught boundary between art and life.

“It was unexpected. It was raw. It was startling. It was awful. It was beautiful. It was factual. Heartbreaking. Cruel. Fresh. Real.”

Throughout the course of her narrative, Lyon explores the aftermath of a devastating loss, on both those who are directly and indirectly affected by this tragedy. With striking precision and realism, Lyon articulates the loneliness, despair, guilt, and longing experienced by her central character, Lu Rile. This is not a happy tale. Far from it. Some readers will find Lu’s actions to be unforgivable, abhorrent even. And those who find themselves feeling more sympathetic towards her will still read her story with great unease, dreading ‘that moment’. From the start, we know what Lu chooses to do, but even so, to actually witness the consequences of her actions..well, it isn’t easy. Many of the interactions that occur in this novel are underlined by a sense of disquiet, one that reminded me vaguely of the work of Ottessa Moshfegh. The imagery within this novel also brought to mind Moshfegh, in that some of Lyon’s scenes and descriptions verged on the grotesque.

“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.”

Lyon evokes in vivid detail 1990s New York, the art circles Lu aspires to be in, the building she lives in, and the places she works at. In addition to a brilliant evocation of place and time and searing commentary on ambition and success, Self-Portrait with Boy boasts the kind of unrelenting pacing that usually characterises thrillers. Lu’s riveting storyline is further enhanced by Lyon’s crisp and lucid prose, which conveys with crystal clarity Lu’s everyday realities as well as her innermost desires and fears.

“I’ll tell you how it started. With a simple, tragic accident.”

Lu, our narrator, now an established photographer, looks back to her ‘lucky break’, the photo that made her (in)famous in the art world. The remainder of the narrative takes place in the early 90s New York when Lu was 26, perennially short on money, and juggling her photography with her three minimum wage jobs. In addition to her photography & money-related anxieties, Lu is worried about her ageing father’s deteriorating eyesight. She lives in a converted warehouse in DUMBO, and rumour has it that developers have their sights set on her neighbourhood.

“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.”

Lu is a lonely socially awkward person. She was raised by her father after her mother took off without a word when she was still little and has no actual friends. Despite her social anxiety and her many insecurities, Lu fully believes in her artistic capabilities. She can be ruthlessly single-minded in her pursuit of fame. She’s isn’t content ‘just’ making art, she wants to be successful. Over the last few years, Lu worked on a project that consists of her taking a self-portrait each day, but so far, she doesn’t seem particularly impressed with the results.

“There is nothing more pathetic than being the only person who believes in you.”

One day however her daily self-portrait (titled #400) reveals to have captured a boy falling to his own death. The boy in question was the son of the couple living in the apartment above her. As the people around her mourn his death, Lu is torn between using #400 to make a name for herself and her growing feelings towards the boy’s mother, Kate. The consequences of not only showcasing but making a profit out of this tragedy are not inconsequential.

“Her grief was so much bigger than one meager photograph. That was just art. This was death and life. I felt foolish and thickheaded—and so, so ugly.”

Yet, while Lu knows that she should seek the boy’s parents’ consent before circulating #400, she’s fearful of their reaction. Lu believes that #400 is her masterpiece and she’s determined to share it with the world. Once she befriends Kate Lu’s ambitions collide with her desires: she strives for her ‘shocking’ photo to be recognised but she also desperately yearns not to be alone anymore. And grieving, beautiful, Kate seems to care for her…doesn’t she?

“At the time she was my only friend. She was so dear to me.”

Lu’s story contains plenty of conflicts: art, morality, love, ambition, selfishness. Lu scrutinises her own actions, the moral dilemma in regards to the photo as well as the everyday little decisions that she makes along the way. There is also her father’s failing sight, her steadily worsening living conditions, her various jobs, her tentative relationships with her neighbours and, of course, her bond with Kate. All of this is set against a vibrantly depicted backdrop, one that buzzes with vitality: from the hubbub of the condominium meetings Lu attends to the bustling energy of the street she walks on.
Lyon doesn’t shy away from including the more disturbing aspect of Lu’s life. There is a particularly graphic scene including a rat nest…which was pretty intense (and possibly traumatising). So, be warned.

Nevertheless, I found myself unable to tear myself away. With startling realism, Lyon portrays Lu’s daily experiences, the conversations or arguments that she has with other people, as well as her inner monologue. Lyon’s narrator is a real tour de force: she is capable of being horrible, and of rationalising her own selfishness in the name of ‘art’. Yet, we see just how bloody lonely and alone Lu is. She longs for intimacy and connection but in those instances where she could try to get close to someone else, she retreats inwards, afraid or unwilling to expose herself to others. She has plenty of opportunities to talk to Kate about #400 but doesn’t. Her determination to succeed is simultaneously monstrous and so very human. We see just how dismissive other people within the art sphere are towards ‘no names’ like her. In spite of the uncertainties she has when it comes to forming meaningful relationships when it comes to her photographs, Lu knows her self-worth. Her observations reflect her artistic inclinations: she seems to view the world through a camera lens, she notices the lighting, pays attention to the objects populating her surroundings.

There is also a surprising almost supernatural element woven into Lu’s otherwise realistic story. It worked well since Lyon includes it without overemphasizing it. In fact, one could easily argue that the haunting that occurs within these pages is not a ‘true’ haunting…and maybe that makes it all the more eerie.

“The thing about remembering is that each time you retrieve an event from the past it alters the memory itself. If to tell a story is to repaint the past, to remember is to crumple; to fold, unfold, refold, and inevitably rip. If to tell a story is to renovate, to remember is to destroy.”

Self-Portrait with Boy paints a troubling portrait of a female artist struggling to make it in the art world. It is also a story of a young woman’s day to day life in 90s New York: there are plenty of odd, occasionally amusing, encounters, and on-point descriptions about her tedious jobs. Her anxiety about money, her father, her future, the photo, permeates her narration, resulting in a novel that is not exactly easy or enjoyable to read. There are also many uncomfortable scenes where you either really do feel on Lu’s behalf (most of the exchanges she has with older men, as they tend to be condescending and/or dismissive of her and her work) or you will find yourself frustrated by the choices she’s making or by how cold and selfish she can sometimes be. I found her exceedingly relatable, especially when it came to her often conflicting desires (to be known/to be unknown).

“I didn’t want to talk to them. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I hoped a familiar hope, a hope I’d developed years before, in high school: that when they looked back on it no one would remember that I’d been there at all..”

This is a challenging read, one that is bound to make you think of what you would do in Lu’s position. Lyon’s prose is effortlessly expressive and her clipped style gives Lu’s narrative a beautiful rhythm. If you have enjoyed other novels that focus on female artists, such as Jen Silverman’s We Play Ourselves, Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss, and Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes, well, I would definitely recommend you check this one out.

“It could transform me from the unknown photographer I was into the artist I wanted to be: serious, disciplined, honest, ruthless. I was dizzy with anticipation. I was hungry with ambition. Self-Portrait #400 could change my life.”

ps: this novel as no quotation marks, which is a ‘technique’ I tend to dislike and actively avoid reading books implement it. Here however Lyon makes it quite clear who is talking as well as what is dialogue and what is Lu’s narration.

my rating: ★★★★★

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