Biography of X by Catherine Lacey

Biography of X is an epic novel, simultaneously a fictional biography and not one, an alternative history, and a story of a celebrity artist and writer with many guises, feuds, and collaborations. X is dead and her wife CM, angry at an incorrect biography of her, starts trying to unravel the mysteries and history of X, a woman who may have been born in the Southern Territory, a fascist theocracy that came out of a rift in the US and now reunified. As CM charts X’s various identities, adventures, and encounters, it is clear that X was complex, but CM may be heading towards what she doesn’t want to think about: the truth about their relationship.

This feels like a unique book, something which takes elements that feel familiar—the fake citations for interviews, the tone of both biography and not, creating an alternate American history—but combines them in a way that is ambitious and surprising. Perhaps the most notable macro element for me was the way in which the book tells an alternate history not only of America, with divided Territories and changed politics, but also of art and culture, changing art history into something female-led and adding X into male creators’ works. In many ways, this seems only incidental to the central concept of the novel, the attempt by the narrator to write something that is not a biography, but is about her dead wife and her metaphorically shapeshifting past. However, in actuality, both these elements are deeply related as the book plays out a multi-faceted look at storytelling and constructing stories, both as an everyday activity and when actually writing.

At times the sheer amount of content and detail dragged, and at other times it felt exciting, though perhaps no point more so than when I got to the references section at the end, in which Lacey acknowledges all the changes made to real life quotes and incidents to make the book. The levels of playing with storytelling were fascinating and it was that element I liked most. There’s also a lot in the book about the nature of art, and the way that CM seems to focus on presenting herself as the antithesis to art, not understanding X’s work at times and focusing on how she herself is plain and a journalist focused on apparent facts, even when people tell her there are none.

Audacious, exciting, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, with ridiculous characters and an alternative history that verges on completely satirical, Biography of X is an experience. The concept of truth is complicated so much that you reach the end unsure if it’s even true that you just read a book, and that was fascinating.