Catherine Lacey's 'Biography of X'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday May 16, 2023
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Catherine Lacey
Catherine Lacey

Catherine Lacey's new (and fourth) novel, "Biography of X" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) tries to be all things — and succeeds. This being 2023, it's being praised for its genre-bending when it would be closer to the truth to see it as a keenly intelligent woman's riding the range with the skill and flair of a circus performer with a foot on each of two horses. Somehow entertainment seems too small a word.

The conceit is this: a writer (of course), horrified by an unauthorized (also lousy) biography of her late wife, makes it her personal quest less to find facts to correct the record than to find out who her partner really was. Along the way she finds out that her wife/lover, a performance artist onstage as well as in life, was even more of an act than she previously thought. Discovering at least a baker's dozen of names under which her spouse lived and worked, the widow settles on X.

What the reader gets is not a work of nonfiction, of course — though it repeatedly tries to fake you out — but a novel. The veil of fiction performs its ideal function of layering narratives and blurring boundaries in the interest of telling a truer story than can be wrung out of a strict marshaling of facts.

The membrane between the actual and the imagined is exposed as parchment-thin, with comedy and tragedy jostling for supremacy while stubbornly remaining odd bedfellows. Things are only intermittently, and then accidentally, what they seem, and the urgency — the seriousness, the solemnity — of the widow's pilgrimage turns out to be more a fool's errand than a revelation, though we don't regard her as a fool, particularly.

If that, as a narrative strategy, sounds irritating, Lacey's skill at keeping multiple plates, heaped high with tempting edibles, spinning in the air — yet another circus act — makes her captivating novel equal parts wildly entertaining, thought-provoking, and emotionally sobering.

Catherine Lacey  

The elements
Here are the fundamentals, if you don't examine them too closely or otherwise insist on their being static. Our narrator, C.M.Lucca, is a journalist, a fraught calling in our perilous times, to be sure. She works in the last decade of last-century America, the fractured land now wrestling with Reunification after the 1945 secession of states that carved the nation into The Southern Territory (ST), the Northern Territory, and the Western Territory. Any resemblance to today's USA, or yesterday's or tomorrow's, is strictly intended. I found the hints of a possible re-secession of the ST lip-smacking.

A year after X's death, and in the immediate wake of Theodore Smith's acclaimed biography of X, "The Woman with a History," Lucca strikes out, ostensibly to correct the historical record, but, increasingly, on a quest not unlike Orpheus following Euridice into the underworld, to learn who her mysterious spouse really was.

Imagine her dismay at the early discovery that X, a radical, controversial practitioner of the kind of art that gets in people's faces, was in fact born Caroline Luanna Walker in conservative old Mississippi (where Lacey herself was born, in Elvis's Tupelo at that). Travels as far afield as San Francisco and Italy yield further shocks, compounding the sense not only that Lucca knew little about the "real" X but also that her own place in the cavalcade of X's previous lovers, and possibly wives, less than ideally clear.

Lucca's quest takes her through a rogue's gallery of the people who knew, worked with, and otherwise survived X, each of whom gets a named chapter. It's as old a narrative frame as literature has to offer, and Lacey ups the ante on the shortcoming of even the most conscientious historiography by footnoting, preposterously, her sources, all those citations at odds with the real-life referents Lacey catalogs at the end of the "Biography."

Cast of characters
The cast of characters makes Chaucer's tale-tellers on their way to Canterbury seem like a company of dullards. For the most part, it's X's colleagues from the world of the rebellious arts who stand large in her history, but the reader is unlikely to fob off the accounts of X's fortifying art as a sex worker in Times Square's Fun City.

What creeps up on the reader as stealthily as it does on Lucca is that one of the most artistic things about X was her willingness to feed on others and then, as Joan Didion declared the artist's true calling, to sell them out.

There's not a hastily drawn character in the lot, many of whom the readers might even find themselves thinking about when they're away from the novel. Some even steal the spotlight, however briefly, from X.

But, taking into account why we're gathered together here, let's appreciate the principal gay male character. Like Professor Higgins, Oleg Hall, with his "exuberant homosexuality," is rich and is as much in the market for a sensational protégé as X is for a patron. Besides setting X up in palatial digs of her own, Oleg introduces her to New York society with predictably outrageous results.

"Oleg almost immediately began financially supporting her, and lavishly so," Lucca tells us. "Love — and I hesitate to use that word, though I am left with few alternatives — rarely moves with that sort of velocity without involving sex, deception, or dependency.

"Yet in what seems to have been a matter of twenty minutes their lives were deeply and unquestioningly intertwined; the situation was never romantic, not did they seem to lie to each other or themselves about the nature of their friendship... The notorious were drawn to him the way the notorious so often are — magnetized by his living drama, his constant audacity."

Anyone familiar with Wedekind's —and Berg's— Lulu will recognize the waif turned seductress become waif again, if more tragically on repeat.

Beyond reason
Lacey's humor is the kind that hits you in the ass on the way to the next sentence. Against the odds, her chronicle is devoid of both cliché and groaners. There are few other writers you'd take this outrageous a display from, yet it interests and sustains beyond reason or explanation.

Such as it's derivative at all, it's in its tireless name-dropping and resort to visual means to amplify the prose. Grainy photographs of droopy subjects are right out of the fiction of W.G. Sebald and placed with a narrative precision more characteristic of the traditional novel than the sleight of hand of a graphic novel.

The sheer level of invention is hard to keep up with at times, but it operates like an engine over a ceaselessly compelling 400 pages. At its most ribald, it bleeds the stuff of human comedy. The humor, deeply compassionate in the end, has the same kind of undertow you feel in an opera love duet; no amount of flash can conceal the hazards of desire, the workings of fate, and the tragedy to come.
It would be an insult to the ingenuity of Lacey's novel to say that it has a moral. Still, many a participant in a romantic relationship will recognize the deep bafflement entailed in trying to know another human being at all.

"It was late in 2002," Lucca observes almost drily of her quest midway through it and Lacey's novel, "when I met Rebecca and several other women who'd slept with X at this time. Other people's memories of my wife had clouded my own by then, which perhaps had been the point all along — not to see her more clearly but to understand I never knew her in full."

'Biography of X,' by Catherine Lacey. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 390 pages $28

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