Self-Portrait with Boy is Rachel Lyon’s first book, and it is definitely far from being a lucky accident. Lyrically written, emotionally complicated, and surprising in many ways, it is hard to put down. It explores what constitutes success and fame and art. A single chance occurrence creates something out of nothing, and someone out of no one — but at an enormous expense. Rachel Lyon has given us much to think about.
Think the tough tone of something like Rachel Kushner's New York/Italian art and politics novel, The Flamethrowers, or Olivia Laing's atmospheric nonfiction book about New York, The Lonely City ... By foreclosing the question of Lu's decision, Lyon avoids the contrived quality built into her plot. Instead, the focus here shifts more to Lu's ambition, her tortured rationalizations and the harsh limits of the world she's desperate to climb out of. Above all, as its title suggests, Self-Portrait With Boy is a smart novel about the narcissistic ambition that's needed to succeed, especially in the art world, especially in New York.
Self-Portrait with Boy is a confident first novel with a lot going for it. The moral dilemma Lyon sets up is explored with intelligence and grace ... Best of all is Rile’s voice, snappish and self-aware and scared, taking on the world while being devoured by it, reaching out to touch the ghosts that float above the East River.
From its first sentences, the novel is hurtling toward its inevitable and nauseating conclusion as Lu chooses between her friendship and her art, a choice that wasn’t ever really a choice at all. More than a book about art, or morality, it is a book about time: Lyon captures the end of an era. Lu, after this, for better and worse, will never be the person she was before the photograph. And as the warehouses get developed and the rents rise, the city won’t ever be the same, either. Fearless and sharp.