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5 May 2023

Catherine Lacey’s biography that isn’t

In inventing a figure who rubbed shoulders with David Bowie and Susan Sontag, the American novelist thrillingly subverts the conventions of life-writing.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In Catherine Lacey’s novel Pew, the protagonist wakes up during a Sunday church service with no memory of who they are or where they have come from. Lacey uses them to test the tolerance of the small American town to which they are a total stranger.

Biography of X, the Mississippi-born author’s fourth novel, is just as peculiar, but is in many ways Pew’s opposite. In the earlier book, the stranger remains a puzzle. The premise here – at least at first – is to explain X and her life. After all, we read a biography primarily to learn about a person.

The novel mimics biographical writing: inside Biography of X by Catherine Lacey we find a title page for “Biography of X” by CM Lucca, X’s widow. X, we discover, was an avant-garde polymath, a renowned novelist, musician and artist. She was a trickster, working and living under pseudonyms and in disguises, and a provocateur who didn’t take kindly to being questioned. CM admits that early on in their relationship she saw in X “an uncommon brutality, something she used both in defence and vengeance”. But to be part of X’s life was to be “fortunate”. X “lived in a play without intermission in which she’d cast herself in every role” – and CM was her willing audience.

We meet CM, our narrator, when she is still mourning her wife but seems relieved to be out of her shadow. CM – a former investigative journalist whose “author’s note” at the end of the text is illustrated by a photo of a woman made humorously unrecognisable by sunglasses and a scarf around her head – claims that she did not intend to write a biography. She merely wanted to discover some facts about X that her wife had always kept hidden. The project does not go to plan. “The title of this book – as titles so often are – is a lie,” Lacey writes. “This is not a biography, but rather a wrong turn taken and followed, the document of a woman learning what she should have let lie in ignorance.”

CM sets out to investigate her wife’s unknown early years and map the course of her career in New York City. X is a marvel whose artistic and social life Lacey evidently had immense fun imagining: X met the American novelist Kathy Acker working at a Times Square sex show; guests at her first wedding included Susan Sontag and Tom Waits; she was photographed for magazine by Annie Leibovitz; she was in Berlin with David Bowie – and wrote “Heroes” for him. There are anecdotes about X’s collaborations with less famous real-life figures, too, such as the songwriter Connie Converse, whose recordings of the 1950s were largely unknown until their rediscovery in 2004. As befits X’s affinity for intrigue, Converse really did disappear in 1974. Lacey makes X the musician’s collaborator, confidante and suspected lover.

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[See also: George Eliot’s marriage plot]

This playful telling of fictive stories featuring some of the most iconic figures in 20th-century pop culture would be enough for an entertaining novel. But Lacey doesn’t stop there: she rewrites the history of America too. In attempting to uncover the truth of X’s childhood, CM travels to the Southern Territory – what we know as the US’s southern states – which from 1945 (the year of X’s birth) to 1996 (coincidentally the year of her death) was an independent, fascist country. She attains a research visa and poses as a journalist in order to visit X’s hometown and interview her parents, ex-husband, and – to CM’s surprise – her son. In the following chapters, CM meets and interviews other former friends and collaborators of X. The more she learns, the more she realises how little she knew her wife at all.

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Biography of X is a work of wonder, written with brilliant attention to detail. Photos of CM’s interviewees illustrate the text – and a list of their sources is provided. CM quotes from essays attributed to the most sought-after real-life cultural critics of today: Rachel Syme, Merve Emre, Durga Chew-Bose. In an entertaining section on the dominance of female artists in this parallel America, Lacey swaps the genders in a Rachel Cusk quote, in which a “Richard Cusk” asks: “Can a male artist – however virtuosic and talented, however disciplined – ever attain a fundamental freedom from the fact of his own malehood?” 

Lacey has said that she wanted to write a real biography of a living person, but was put off by a teacher who told her it would “kill” her. In fictionalising her pursuit, she pilfers from the genre while satirising it. Because of course this “biography” doesn’t really do its job. CM finds out that no matter how many letters and diary entries a researcher rifles through, no single book can ever truly express who a person is or was. Catherine Lacey’s ambitious novel promises no such thing – and is all the more fun for it.

Biography of X
by Catherine Lacey
Granta, 416pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?