The narrator of Biography of X...has a cool tone and a lonely intelligence; she’s a solitary spirit. Her voice is clear but worn, like beach glass. There’s some early Renata Adler in it, and some Janet Malcolm...C.M.’s voice, with its withdrawn quality and intimations of ruin, is an odd one to preside over a novel this sprawling and ambitious, this strange and dystopian and vividly imagined. Biography of X reimagines the American century while tapping into our evergreen fascination with the downtown art world between 1970 and 1995. It’s a hard book to get a handle on ... This is a magpie novel, one that borrows snatches of text, that tinkers with reputations, that moves historical figures around in time ... By its second half, Biography of X has begun to drag somewhat. We follow C.M. on interview after interview, and the form is too conventional; all that’s missing is a Peter Coyote voice-over ... But you will already be locked in. This is a major novel, and a notably audacious one. Lacey is pulling from a deep reservoir...This book is about facing, and accepting, the things you didn’t want to know.
...in its boldness of premise and execution, Biography of X goes above and beyond, under the river and through the woods. It flaunts world-building skills that the writers of HBO’s Game of Thrones wish they’d had ... At first read, Lacey’s dedication to the bizarro-world reality of this novel was irksome. I was more interested in her sentences...I found myself yearning for more of X and Lucca. I didn’t care about the fact that X may have been a spy for the Northern Territory or that she had collaborated with David Bowie ... But the ending of this novel changed my thinking and confirmed that Lacey is one of the most fearless novelists writing today ... The climax of the book, what Lucca discovers, is not to be shared in this review. But it is the recognizable nightmare of anyone who has loved an art monster. More terrifying and tantalizing is the message such parallel worlds send to art monsters themselves. Lacey asks, what happens when we don’t choose love?
Lacey’s book, which is trimmed with photographs, historical data, collected interviews, and secondary sources, joins a recent spate of critically acclaimed novels that adorn themselves with the formal signifiers of nonfiction ... C. M. Lucca’s fictional biography makes up the entirety of Lacey’s novel. The result is not really a book-within-a-book but, rather, a book encased in the glistening film of a different title, author, and genre ... Lacey’s Christian Coup is not a new novelistic premise...but Lacey creates a particularly elaborate and polarized counterfactual world on its basis ... Lacey’s form skillfully evokes what her character Lucca is experiencing in the story itself: a reluctant disquiet and gnawing curiosity over the given material’s true source. And, to Lacey’s credit, I can’t remember the last time that I’ve read a recently published novel and amiably wondered if its narrative strategies were, in fact, completely legal ... Ossifies a sliver of bohemia as it already existed, preserving the basic provocations of the counterculture while evacuating the material conditions of the culture that it responded to. The novel’s conclusion is ultimately sorrowful: everything could change, and nothing would be different ... Perhaps all biography is built from that kind of earnest ventriloquism, that kind of clouded remembering. Ghosts appear in our mouths, confused and out of time. The widows stand vigil: writing, writing, writing.
To those readers who prize 'relatability,' Catherine Lacey's latest novel may as well come wrapped in a barbed wire book jacket. There is almost nothing about Biography of X, as this novel is called, that welcomes a reader in ... Feeling put off by all this experimental genre-bending? Don't be. For as much as Lacey has written a postmodern miasma of a novel about deception and the relationship of the artist to their work, she's also structured that novel in an old-fashioned way: via a Scheherazade-like sequence of stories. Most of these stories are about the charismatic X's life and fabrications; all of them are arresting in their originality; and, the final story that CM is led to, housed in a storage facility, is devastating in its calculated brutality ... Brilliant, destabilizing.
The imagined details of the Great Disunion, as it’s called, yo-yo between the plausible and the preposterous (FDR chief-of-staff Emma Goldman?), but the effect, along with allowing Ms. Lacey a certain amount of ideological ax-grinding, is to create a backdrop that is as protean and unstable as the woman at the book’s center. All this fan-dancing with fact and fiction would seem puerile in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ms. Lacey imposes a truly outstanding narrative authority on her pseudo-biography, capturing the irreconcilable phases of X’s life with convincing texture and emotional intensity, using paradoxes to heighten the suspense of Lucca’s search for understanding ... Ms. Lacey has written three previous novels, all of them good, but the audacity of this book, joined with its vivid re-imaginings of countercultural scenes from the ’70s and ’80s and its glancing intersection with current-day debates about art and politics, seems likely to bring her to a much wider audience. If this does mark Ms. Lacey’s deserved elevation to mainstream attention, she has accomplished it without diluting the vital qualities of confusion, yearning and mystery. Like X—who appears to us simultaneously courageous and cruel, indomitable and desperate—this is a novel that will not fully reveal its meanings. What it does, instead, is hurl us into Lucca’s obsessive quest, as dogged as it is fatalistic, to somehow grab hold of the vagaries of love and creation.
Lacey complicates X's willful air of mystery by setting the work in a dystopian landscape. Although states and cities maintain their current names, the country that X and C.M. inhabit has an alternative history ... The themes Lacey raises in this latest work are abundant: questions of story and truth, text and memory, art and its cultural significance, the consequence of celebrity ... Lacey's approach to the making of fiction, in this case, is to adopt the structure and trappings of nonfiction ... These are risks taken in the service of authenticity. The prose feels bold and exhilarated, figuring itself out as it moves forward, an act of raucous creativity.
Criminally good ... Delightful ... Lacey’s ingenious and playful methods enact the same shape-shifting quality that this novel explores. She seamlessly alters and repurposes the work and words of countless artists and writers ... Lacey plunges us into the most pressing contemporary conversation about the performance of the self, means of representation, commodification of identity, and how identity markers are often fixed, though identity itself is not static.
Haunting, genre-bending ... Biography of X is a stranger, more ambitious and more accomplished book [than Pew] ... Biography of X is presented to the reader as a simulacrum of a nonfiction work. This is an enchantingly strange proposition and, like Pew, it only gets stranger ... There’s something wondrous about the way the book backs into its high concept ... There is so much that’s impressive about this book. It makes you think afresh about America and American history. It roves over the muddy trenches of identity politics while saying things that are original and not parti pris. At its centre, X is a charismatic, tantalising figure who takes aim at all orthodoxies. My one quibble with the novel is that there’s a tendency to apostrophise too much about the puzzles of love, art and identity at the heart of the book. The courageous world-building and bold storytelling carry these themes without any need for additional rhetorical flourishes.
There are a number of ways to read the story of this relationship ... Brimming with negative capability, intrigue, and erudition, Biography of X is at once a tense, tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale for the United States and a robustly supported argument for the idea that biographical knowledge alters the reading of an artwork. At the intersection of both of these vectors sits the figure of the verbally dexterous artist who, for better or worse, says what most dare not say ... Reading Biography of X sharpens one’s skepticism and criticality in the face of individuals and institutions that bend the truth in accordance with their worldviews ... Lacey curates a reading experience that is active and self-aware, proof that, despite the rampant disinformation and short supply of negative capability that characterize our contemporary moment, readers have the ability to discern fact from fiction—and we’d better start doing so now.
All of Lacey’s work until now has explored the ineffability, the incomprehensibility of selfhood, how murky and uncertain we all are at the center; how murky and uncertain our ability to see and love and care for one another is. The title of Lacey’s first novel is Nobody Is Ever Missing; the title of this new book might well be Nobody Is Ever Found. All of her novels have been built around absences and lacks—a sister’s suicide, a disappearance, an unnamed, unraced, ungendered person—but X is both the most intricately constructed and the most ambitious, in the unknown self, the love and art it seeks ... The alternative history doesn’t always hold up in the face of questions of logistics...The book seems more interested, however, in the complexity and fragility of history as it unfolds, in how the world we know is always a near-collapsing house of cards ... This opacity feels less like a failure than a necessary consequence of Lacey’s project: If you convince a reader that there’s no such thing as fully seeing, knowing, understanding, it can be that much more difficult to see and know and understand what happens when this person makes choices and acts ... There is an ambition in The Biography of X that’s thrilling not least because it shows how endless, how elastic and expansive—at a time when so much storytelling feels constricted, tight and close on a single consciousness—fiction can be. It also makes even clearer how elusive that central and unknowable thing—the lighthouse, the grey goose—is. If I yearned at the end for more visceral proximity to both X and CM, the jolt and fizzle of their wants and needs, maybe that’s also what Lacey suggests art can be: work that painstakingly reconstructs the lacks and absences around us, to make us ache for all things that both art and love might never fully grasp.
The Southern Territory and X’s perilous escape are a way for Lacey — who grew up religious in Mississippi — to get at the question of what happens when someone who was raised to believe they live in a world with a god absconds from that world. For all the detail, though, parts of her alternate America feel underrealized...Surely a novel about a South that seceded in 1945 might lend more of its plot to Black communities, and surely the North at that time would have its own intense racism. But those ideas aren’t given much narrative priority here ... she begins a grand tour of 1960s and ’70s America and Europe, exercising a subtle influence over familiar cultural products like an artsy, self-actualized Forrest Gump...At times, it’s exhilarating, but the warped cultural history doesn’t consistently enhance the plot; at its worst, it feels like a distraction, and the point of it all can be hard to grasp ... The chapters in which C.M. makes a reporting trip to the Southern Territory are virtuosic ... But Lacey herself is brilliant. As in her earlier fiction, she is thinking deeply about what we give up to other people when we love them. Under all the narrative scaffolding, the moments in Biography of X that land most reliably have to do with long-suffering C.M., whose mourning — she is 'romanced by grief,' she says — turns to horror as she unpeels her wife’s layers of secrecy and manipulation.
Biography of X bristles with correspondences and connections to upscale and downtown art and culture, but is also an energetic fantasy about an America that might have been ... There are elements of Lacey’s alternate universe—declining birth rates in the South, teenage girls incarcerated and forced into pregnancy—that recall other novelists (in this case, Margaret Atwood). But much of what she imagines is excessive, gratuitous, or oddly beside any satirical point, so that you have to conclude her intentions lie some distance from mere dystopian parallel or warning ... In the end, X is actually a kind of collective, and not at all (at least not quite) a portrait of overweening individuality or egotism. Viewed from the larger historical perspective the novel posits, the American individual also seems shot through with revolutionary as well as totalitarian possibilities.
A feat of technical brilliance ... Though the novel’s world building lacks a critical engagement with race, which Lacey only mentions in passing, and though it sometimes feels more like a stylized thought experiment than a book with a beating, human heart, Biography of X is still a stunning achievement. It is nearly impossible not to get lost in Lacey’s exquisitely detailed version of America. Nothing about it feels fictional ... A dazzling literary chimera, at once an epic and chilling alternate history of the United States and an intimate portrait of a woman coming apart at the seams.
An audacious novel of art and ideas ... The author also perfectly marries her invented history with her study of a shape-shifting artist, with X refashioning herself both to escape her ultraconservative homeland and to build a vehicle for her creative expression. This is brilliant.