Published by Scribner
Publication date: February 6th 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
A startlingly unique and uncomfortable premise is at the heart of Self-Portrait with Boy: an artist is in the midst of taking a series of self-portraits against a window of her apartment when she hears a commotion and learns that the 9-year-old son of her upstairs neighbors, has fallen to his death from the roof. When she develops her film, she discovers one of the frames captures the boy in mid-fall behind her. It is a stunning piece of art, perfect in its form, but given its context can she ever use it? Can she even tell anyone she has it?
For Lu Rile, the artist in question, the answer is yes to one and no to the other. Through Lu’s thoughts and decisions, author Rachel Lyon presents the epitome of tormented artist. She is not yet 30, works at three jobs to pay for supplies and basic necessities, and lives in a Manhattan building not meant for human habitation. Her neighbors are all artists of varying degrees of success benefitting from a building owner who doesn’t care who pays for the rooms in his building. Lu takes nothing but pictures of herself, a self-portrait project that has been going on for over a year. For her,
I understand now that some artists look out into the world and some look in. I am interested in the limits of, the prison of, the self.
The photo with the boy is #400. Through perseverance she meets a gallery owner and, even though much of the rest of her life is crumbling—debt, eviction, her father’s declining health—she gets the chance to show the piece. As this is happening she becomes friends with the boy’s mother, Kate, all while never telling her about the photo. In scene after scene, Lyon carefully layers Lu’s brittle, solitary and secretive self with the soft new ties of friendship and social interaction to create a picture as filled with contrasts as #400.
The photograph, Lu’s fearsome desire to be recognized as an artist, and even the situation behind her apartment combine to make Self-Portrait compelling. The novel provokes thought at every turn and not in a way that feels forced. Lu is not likable which only adds to the conflict and enhances the story. There are fascinating ethical questions to be answered about honesty, art, and friendship, but Lyon layers in additional aspects that felt completely unwarranted and detract from the novel. One of these is a supernatural occurrence that might be seen as Lu’s conscience, but the amount of extrapolation needed to make these connections pulls the story away from its natural arc. Much like Asymmetry, another contemporary novel I reviewed last week, Self-Portrait did not fully come together, but I think Lyon is an author with promise.