The Financial Times
Biography of X by Catherine Lacey — a matter of facts
This fake biography of a fictional late 20th-century artist is a meticulous and seductive thought experiment
The title character of Catherine Lacey’s novel, Biography of X, writes songs for David Bowie. But that’s only one among her many accomplishments. Through the 1970s and ’80s, she squabbles with Susan Sontag, kisses Kathy Acker and is interviewed by Barbara Walters. X is an iconoclast, an experimental writer, dabbling musician and artist of the recognisable enfant terrible variety: disruptive and contrarian. Over the decades she assembles artefacts and devises installations under a ceaseless series of pseudonyms. But the question of who X really is remains a mystery — not least, to her widow, CM, who narrates the novel as a reluctant biographer.
X is a fictional character (in case that wasn’t clear), but Lacey constructs her with such assurance that you find yourself doubting. She embeds her in a 20th-century art scene and surrounds her with a cast of real peers and pundits — some of whose own utterances and infamies are slyly attributed to X instead. Discerning facts from fiction is the pleasure of this Russian doll of a book: a biography of an imaginary subject, written by an imaginary biographer, housed inside a novel pretending not to be one. Biography of X is a meticulously assembled work, complete with fictional footnotes for invented interviews, apparent photographs of X in her youth and extracts of her miscellaneous correspondence. It even comes with the obligatory “Author’s Note” for CM at the end. Really, all this trickery should feel like obnoxious authorial hi-jinx, but instead there’s something seductive in the intelligence Lacey assumes of her reader — even as she runs rings around us.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, CM’s investigations take us not only into X’s past, but the past of America itself — something audaciously reimagined in the novel in the form of a counterfactual history of a disunited north and south. In the “Great Disunion of 1945”, CM informs us, a wall was “erected between much of the Deep South, and the rest of the country by an insurgent theocratic government”. In Lacey’s alternative America, history too shows itself to be as unstable as biography. It makes Biography of X more than a mystery. It’s a thriller set against a backdrop of political intrigue, an elegy, an art world satire and a thought experiment too.
This is the fourth novel from Lacey — a recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship and listed as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2017 — and each feels peculiar, vertiginous and enquiring in different ways. Tempting as it is to cast Lacey’s book as a response to a modern age of misinformation and a “post-truth” world, it probably belongs better in that longer, nicely reflexive and mind-bending tradition of post-structuralist novels — Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, for example, Laurent Binet’s 7th Function of Language, or Hernan Diaz’s recent Trust — in which narrators are untrustworthy and history a fiction. Lacey seems both to be writing inside these tropes and satirising them too.
Yet Biography of X never feels like an intellectual exercise. Instead, it suggests how in the vacuum left by truth, comes fiction — speculative and surprising. When Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author” in the 1960s, it was to liberate interpretation, freeing it from the tyranny of authorial intention. But Lacey also takes it more literally in a biography that manages to be both ersatz and elegiac. X is dead but her voice lives on in CM’s head, “as if she had broken in like a burglar”. If biography is hard, so too is the task of truly knowing a person, and death only affirms that impossibility. It’s early days still, but Biography of X is almost certainly one of the most interesting books you’ll read this year. Biography of X by Catherine Lacey, Granta £18.99/Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28, 416 pages