Book Rec: Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey

March 12, 2024

I’ll go short this week. Just one book, but it’s a big weird sprawling experimental novel, only don’t be put off by that. You will be riveted. It’s an art novel, a marriage novel, a book about monsters, and a fake history of the United States. It’s also illustrated and purports to be a biography of an artist who does not actually exist, right down to fake publication info, fake endnotes and index, fake acknowledgements, and fake citations for fake articles.

Catherine Lacey is a youngish and irritatingly talented American writer. This is, I think, her fourth book, and it is unlike anything she’d published before, or almost anything I have ever read, and I read anything that remotely resembles stuff along these lines.

A woman, CM, undertakes to write a biography of her wife, the famous and controversial artist X, while still grieving X’s recent and sudden death. You realize as you read that we are in an alternate America, which fractured into three territories in the 1940s: the South, which is a rural deeply bigoted theocracy (Lacey grew up in Mississippi), the West, which is libertarian, and the North, where X and CM live (but not, we discover, where X was born), which is left-wing and socially progressive but also profoundly authoritarian (Lacey is fairly take-no-prisoners politically, which I love). In an interview, Lacey says airily that she came up with the structure because she wanted to write a marriage novel that was same gender, and was most interested in the seventies art scene, when such a thing would have been outlandish and illegal. So she came up with a new reality to accommodate her characters. This is what fiction does. I’m just envious she goes about doing it so casually, like it’s nothing. While the book, like a real biography undertaken by someone close to the subject, is unwieldy and too tangential at moments, that’s also part of the artifice. The portrait of X that emerges is terrifying: imagine Kathy Acker, David Bowie, Francis Bacon and Susan Sontag in a blender with a brilliant sociopath.