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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Biography of X

Catherine Lacey

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To purchase Biography of X

Title: Biography of X
Author: Catherine Lacey
Genre: Novel
Written: 2023
Length: 364 pages
Availability: Biography of X - US
Biography of X - UK
Biography of X - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : clever idea(s), but falls short of its potential

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 20/4/2023 Shahidha Bari
The Guardian A 29/3/2023 Marcel Theroux
Literary Review . 4/2023 James Purdon
London Rev. of Books . 4/5/2023 Joanna Biggs
The LA Times . 20/3/2023 Jessica Ferri
New Statesman . 5/5/2023 E.Peirson-Hagger
The NY Times A- 23/4/2023 Dwight Garner
The New Yorker . 1/5/2023 Audrey Wollen
The Spectator . 8/4/2023 Claire Lowdon
Sunday Times . 2/4/2023 Claire Lowdon
The Telegraph A 17/3/2023 Gabrielle Schwarz
TLS . 31/3/2023 Jude Cook
Wall Street Journal . 17/3/2023 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A+ 20/3/2023 Chris Kraus

  Review Consensus:

  Mostly enjoyed what Lacey does and how she does it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Biography of X is a meticulously assembled work, complete with fictional footnotes for invented interviews, apparent photographs of X in her youth and extracts of her miscellaneous correspondence. (...) It’s a thriller set against a backdrop of political intrigue, an elegy, an art world satire and a thought experiment too. (...) Biography of X never feels like an intellectual exercise. Instead, it suggests how in the vacuum left by truth, comes fiction -- speculative and surprising." - Shahidha Bari, Financial Times

  • "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." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian

  • "The book feels densely populated, like a party where you keep getting distracted from the conversation you're having because people keep walking in. (...) Against the book's impulse to make friends is the idea that political separation may be the only way certain desirable civic conditions can come to pass." - Joanna Biggs, London Review of Books

  • "At first read, Lacey’s dedication to the bizarro-world reality of this novel was irksome. I was more interested in her sentences (.....) But the ending of this novel changed my thinking and confirmed that Lacey is one of the most fearless novelists writing today. (...) Biography of X is also about power." - Jessica Ferri, The Los Angeles Times

  • "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. (...) Biography of X is a work of wonder, written with brilliant attention to detail. " - Ellen Peirson-Hagger, New Statesman

  • "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. (...) 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. (...) But you will already be locked in. This is a major novel, and a notably audacious one." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "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. (...) Biography of X is built from these carapaces, historical figures without the meat of their lived deeds and principles. Names, Lacey proposes, are merely vessels, as X so brazenly demonstrates, and anything can be poured inside. (...) Lacey’s willingness to use and misuse every kind of material comes with a certain thrill. But, without an underlying pattern, Biography of X acts more as a blender than a quilt-maker, whirring the twentieth century into a blur and sacrificing cause and effect. At times, it felt like icons and actions were paired through chance, scribbled identities licked and pressed onto the unseeing foreheads of cultural moments. The law of the random would be a more generous interpretation. An alternative one is that boundless irreverence can often gravitate toward a strange and impetuous conservatism." - Audrey Wollen, The New Yorker

  • "This uncategorisable novel is above all an exercise in world-building, one that raises questions about what ‘fiction’ means. It is mesmerising, provocative, deeply impressive -- and, ultimately, over-reliant on the special effects. Personally, I prefer the lower-budget attractions of the short story collection. But I will never not be interested in whoever Catherine Lacey chooses to be next." - Claire Lowdon, The Spectator

  • "The outlandish plot of Biography of X is an excellent conduit for Lacey -- our flesh-and-blood author -- to continue exploring the preoccupations of her earlier works: grief and the impulse towards self-destruction; art and fame; religious intolerance; the mutability of identity; the pain of realising you no longer know, or perhaps never knew, the person you loved. As usual, she renders this material with lucidity and wit, and Lacey fans will also appreciate the reappearance of her virtuosic long sentences. Foolish or not, I couldn’t help finding it all heartbreakingly real." - Gabrielle Schwarz, The Telegraph

  • "The author convinces us by the sheer inventiveness of her artifice. (...) Biography of X is the author’s most ambitious and enjoyable novel yet, filled with the subversive humour and verve only hinted at in her previous books. Complete with the full academic apparatus of footnotes and “original” images from X’s life, it is consistently playful and inventive. Even if some of its targets are low-hanging fruit, and the satire is a little blunt, we get the sense of a writer hitting a rich seam and mining it for all it’s worth." - Jude Cook, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(B)rilliant, astonishing (.....) X herself, and her prodigious oeuvre, is an amalgam of nearly every important cultural figure in late-20th-century writing, music and art. (...) The book is a marvelous centrifuge, in which political and cultural histories of the American 20th century collapse." - Chris Kraus, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Biography of X is a book within a book. It comes with a title-page presenting it as 'A Novel' by Catherine Lacey and then a corresponding copyright-page; a few blank pages -- first black then increasingly lighter shades of grey -- later comes an almost identical title-page, but this time without it being described as a novel, and with the author now named: C.M.Lucca; a copyright page follows that dates the book to 2005, rather than 2023. So too at the end we find 'A Note about the Author' C.M.Lucca -- noting she was born in 1957 and promising: "This is her first and last book" -- before eventually also coming to 'A Note about the Author' Catherine Lacey.
       The text that C.M.Lucca writes is a 'Biography of X', her now deceased wife. She writes in the first person, and her narrative is more about how she goes about investigating X's life and what she uncovers than straightforward biography. She also explains what motivated her: another biography of X, by one Theodore Smith, A Woman Without a History, that Lucca detests (and argues is error-strewn) but which has: "been held up as the definitive account of X's life". Lucca is particularly outraged that Smith didn't even get X's birthplace and parents right -- though at the time she, too, did not know where X had actually been born or who here parents were, she just knew Smith got it wrong, and:

     I never intended to write a corrective biography -- if that is what this book is. All I wanted at first was to find out where my wife had been born, and I imagined I might publish my findings as an essay, and article, or perhaps a lawsuit, something to quickly discredit Mr.Smith.
       Lucca thinks she knows better than Smith, and she wants to set the record straight. A big problem is, however, that she too didn't really know that much about her mysterious and secretive wife, beginning with all the names X had used over the years. (Interestingly, Lucca, too, has some name-issues: "My parents had been in disagreement about what to write on my birth certificate, one of them insisting on Charlotte Marie and the other on Cynthia Malone. Until the age of seven I was called both names interchangeably".) Biography of X is, among other things, about identity, and X's proves extremely slippery.
       As will eventually be made clear, the story takes place not just in another time, but in an alternate reality, American history having taken a radically different turn in the mid-twentieth century. For all that, the present-day New York City scene readers enter at the beginning of the novel is quite familiar -- not least because of the familiar artist-names that figure in back- and foreground. Yet another of the games Lacey is playing is using the familiar to support her alternate-vision: many of the quotes and episodes are taken from familiar sources and re-purposed in the narrative; an end-notes section identifies the quotes and sources (and adaptations Lacey has made, e.g. "I have altered pronouns and verb tense in this quote"). Real-life figures -- Tom Waits and David Bowie. authors Kathy Acker and Denis Johnson, artist Richard Serra, among others -- also appear in the story. In ascribing others' quotes to and about X, Lacey constructs her protagonist as a kind of human palimpsest. Early on already, Lucca admits: "my wife layered fictions within her life as a kind of performance or, at times, a shield", and Lacey magnifies this in her fiction with the additional layers of (real-life) others' documented words and experiences she attributes to X.
       Lucca met with Smith when X was still alive -- he already wanted to write about her then -- and explained to him that:
     It is her explicit wish not to be captured in a biography, not now and not after she's gone.
       Of course, in writing her own 'Biography of X' Lucca goes against these clear wishes; she tries to convince herself that she's merely trying to better understand her former wife's life, and that her journalistic instincts -- she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist -- keep driving her on in her research and quest, but, of course, her act is also the ultimate betrayal of her former partner. (She eventually rationalizes it by revealing that she: "discovered an unforgivable trespass against myself and my privacy on X's part, and will no longer be respecting her wish to remain unsummarized".)
       Lucca also told Smith: "Only her art will remain", but in fact there's little of X's art to be seen: 'Biography of X' describes much of it -- books, art -- visual and performance --, music -- but only very roughly; readers are only given a sense of what it is like (and told how successful, or not, it was) without really being able to judge X's talents; we have to take Lucca/Lacey's word for it. (The few familiar 'examples' of X's art -- Lucca/Lacey ascribe David Bowie's song 'Heroes' to her, for example -- are, like may of the quotes, actually others' work, and it's (unfortunately) hard to buy into Lacey's fiction so fully as to believe they are truly X's creations.)
       Some of the concept-art is described in closer detail but, again, it is the concept rather than the art that is the focus, as with the exhibit The Human Subject, where Lucca does print X's "Disclosure' -- a sort of introduction-explanation printed in the exhibit catalogue. Dealing with identity, it is revealing about X (and what she is trying to convey in the exhibit -- "a total, ongoing delusion, a work of art that overtook life so completely that no seams could be seen") but, yet again, is more art-as-theory than art in practice. (This is, of course, appropriate, in that it reflects much modern art-work, where the idea trumps the realization, and the concept is what matters; it's no less frustrating for that.)
       When X first courted a still-married Lucca they sound each other out some:
     At one point on that first walk I told her that I'd heard about her work, and that I found it all quite suspicious.
     There's nothing to suspect about me, she said. I don't hide anything.
     I said I wasn't so sure.
     And you shouldn't be. You shouldn't be sure of anything.
       Certainly, X does her best to keep everyone, public and private, guessing. There's a lot she doesn't reveal about herself, and there's a lot she invents. It's nearly impossible to be sure about anything about her.
       Lacey sets her novel in an America whose trajectory was different from the familiar one, most notably in a split between north and south, the Southern Territory a backward theocracy cut off from the rest of the world by a wall for half a century or so -- an American East Germany, or even North Korea. Among Lucca's discoveries is that X was born in the Southern Territories, and that she was a rare escapee from there. (Only recently was it reünified now with the north, and it remains very backward.)
       In contrast to this repressive state, the Northern Territory has long been a much more progressive one than the real-life United States, not least regarding the role of women. One of the most interesting aspects of Lacey's novel comes in considering feminism in a society that seemed to have managed to achieve an at least nominal equality of the sexes, as:
Though women had federally mandated equal pay, free child care, access to birth control, and equal representation in government and most professions -- and even though there was overwhelming national support for the policies that had led to these advancements -- tenacious forms of sexism still existed within the culture, according to many.
       Another shift from actual history is in the American art scene, where a shift from art being seen as: "almost exclusively a male calling" took place, and after World War II: "women were seen as the sex to whom "art" belonged" -- a clever idea that is reflected in some of X's path as well. As with so much in Biography of X, however, this isn't explored nearly enough.
       Biography of X bogs down in flighty X's many selves. She is almost impossible to pinpoint -- often literally: she simply disappears (and tells Lucca never to ask about where she's been) -- and transforms and recreates herself in countless guises (and with countless names). X did explain her belief that:
You are not your name, you are not what you have done, you are not what people see, you are not what you see or what you have seen.
       She also embodied that claim -- making her a somewhat problematic figure to center a biography on, faux or not.
       Lacey presents X as a very significant artist, with a remarkable, and remarkably varied output. It's a lot to load on a character, and, predictably, X can't live up to it, not on the basis of what Lucca/Lacey present. Meanwhile, some of the more interesting potential in the book, notably the role and position of women, as artists and generally, in this altered reality is left under-developed and explored.
       Lucca's quest leads her to many of the people who had been important in X's life, but Lucca is chronicling her writing-of-biography as much as she is writing a biography -- and, far from being a neutral observer, as a journalist might aspire to, she is, of course, much too much emotionally involved (understandably so, since her subject is one she had such profound feelings for). As such, Lucca often threatens to displace X as the subject of the book, which is also one of self-discovery rather than just discovery. (As Lucca admits, halfway through, as she finds herself caught up in her project: "now I am busy, so busy, day and night, ruining my life".) Unfortunately, Lucca isn't particularly interesting -- in no small part because she doesn't seem to be very sure of her own self; as such, she also functions too much simply as a kind of foil for X. Their love for one another remains something of a mystery as well -- and, while that may be true of love in general, you'd figure Lucca would have at least a little better handle on the nature of their relationship. Both Lucca and the ultra-mutable X remain too much ciphers, with too little history, characters that don't -- that have practically never -- grown, but simply are.
       The idea of X as blank slate construct, built up on the ideas, quotes, and experiences of others, is a clever and appealing one, but doesn't fully come off. For one, X is too many different people; that may be part of Lacey's point, but it does not play well in this form.
       The depiction of the modern/contemporary art world has its amusing moments -- X's Sophie Calle-stalking work (Where Are You, Sophie ?) and the like are fun ideas -- and especially the New York scene is entertaining, and Lacey does introduce many intriguing ideas. Lacey has a good feel for this culture -- and the writing about it -- and utilizes that well. However, the characters and many of the episodes, especially in Lucca's not-quite-interviews of the subjects, have a more forced feel -- but maybe Lucca is, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, just meant to be a bad journalist (and she does have the excuse of being emotionally way too tied up with her subject).
       Ultimately, Biography of X is more impressive as concept than in its realization (as, one suspects, most of X's work is). Mind you, Lacey presents her construct very impressively, employing found (and occasionally commissioned) photographs, a wide variety of quotes, as wel as inventing sources in Lucca's footnotes to her text. But the novel built up around that doesn't nearly do those conceits, or her alternate reality, full justice.
       Biography of X is decent but ultimately a bit flat fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 May 2023

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Biography of X: Reviews: Catherine Lacey: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Catherine Lacey was born in 1985.

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© 2023 the complete review

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