Catherine Lacey’s brilliant, astonishing new novel, “Biography of X,” is presented to the reader as a book by a fictional character, a journalist named C.M. Lucca. More than a year after the death of her wife, a renowned and notorious artist who called herself X, Lucca embarks on a mission to uncover the most basic facts of her spouse’s life: her real name, the date and place of her birth. It’s 1997, and Theodore Smith’s unauthorized biography of X, “A Woman Without a History,” has just been published to fantastic acclaim.
Like all biographies, Smith’s is false. How can the infinite contours of any one life be contained in a book? As Lacey-as-Lucca observes: “People are, it seems, too complicated to sit still inside a narrative”; or, as X herself remarks in an interview Lacey imagines with the real-life critic and curator Robert Storr, people “don’t stay the same unless they’re dead.” “The trouble with knowing people,” Lucca writes, “is how the target keeps moving.”
Still, Smith’s biography is even more pandering and deceptive than most. At first, Lucca is driven by grief and revenge. At the end of her seven-year search, she will have completed “The Biography of X” and distanced herself almost entirely from the woman she thought she knew and still loves.
Everything in Lacey’s novel is turned upside down. At the time of X’s death in 1996, the United States is attempting reunification after its bloody division into the Northern, Southern and Western Territories two decades before. The state of Kentucky stands alone, having refused the Southern theocracy’s alcohol ban. By the 1970s, cultural commentators in the elite, educated North worried that female artists had become overrepresented. “Outsider” artists Larry Rivers and Yves Klein staged a guerrilla show of their work outside the Guggenheim to protest because the museum hadn’t exhibited any work by a man in more than 10 years.
X herself, and her prodigious oeuvre, is an amalgam of nearly every important cultural figure in late-20th-century writing, music and art. She collaborates with the forgotten singer-songwriter Connie Converse. She writes lyrics for David Bowie. Like Kanye West, she begins as a self-taught producer but ends up a star. Her writings appropriate work by Denis Johnson, Jean Rhys, Kathy Acker, Toni Morrison and Susan Sontag.
Her artworks — created, for the first decade of her career, under a series of aliases — mirror projects by Sophie Calle, Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, Louise Bourgeois and the collective Bernadette Corporation. For example, in the novel, Bourgeois’s famed 1978 performance “Confrontation” becomes X-as-Vera’s 1979 debut, “Provocation.” After a survey exhibition in 1982, “The Human Subject,” X retires her dozens of aliases and settles upon X as her name.
Even the commentaries on her work and career are created by Lacey from skewed sources — essays by real household names, mine included, in the very small town of American art criticism. The book is a marvelous centrifuge, in which political and cultural histories of the American 20th century collapse.
As Lucca quickly discovers, X’s compulsion for fictitious identity arose from a practical need. Born (like Lacey herself) in Mississippi as Caroline Luanna Walker, X married young, had a child and participated in a doomed attempt, when she was 23, to blow up the Revelation Rifle factory with six like-minded friends. “Art,” as X once declared, “is an expression of the society from which it emerges, not the artist in themselves.”
Presumed dead, she flees and then drifts around the libertarian Western Territory between campgrounds and jobs, using a series of forged IDs. Two of her fellow survivors, Ted Gold and Kathy Boudin, also remain defined by the factory attack. Gold defects to the North and becomes a professional advocate of all liberal causes, a respectable version of his younger self. Boudin meets the sad fate of her contemporary Valerie Solanas — destitute, drunk and then dead in a San Francisco SRO.
But X chooses life, chooses change. After meeting and falling in love with Converse (a real-life pioneer singer-songwriter who failed to receive recognition and disappeared in 1974), X moves to New York as “Bee Converse” in 1972. Adopted by a bored socialite, she strategically works her way into the heart of New York’s underground, even doing a stint at the live Times Square sex show Fun City, as Acker did in 1971.
Assuming the diligently plodding persona of Lucca, Lacey writes about the divisions between North, West and South with timely ambivalence. Despite the North’s social progress in guaranteeing universal income, health care and child care, Lucca is unmoored by its intrinsic materialism and spiritual chaos. Appalled by the South’s racist brutality, she remains sympathetic to the simple need for belief that its theocracy fills. She is fully aware of how numbed people are by misinformation and how it undermines the very idea of objective truth, but like X, she believes deeply in the power of fiction. X, Lucca writes, longed to live in fiction (“that sanctity”) and “not to be fooled by the flimsiness of perceived reality, which was nothing more than a story that had fooled most of the world.”
As Lucca’s investigations into the unknown corners of X’s life progress, she comes to see her beloved’s brave, reckless forays beyond boundaries as acts of intentional cruelty, as when she seduced and ghosted the feminist theorist Carla Lonzi during a few intense weeks in Milan. Lucca’s quest culminates with the shocking discovery of a never-before-seen exhibition, housed in a Santa Fe, N.M., storage locker, which reveals X’s control of their marriage and of Lucca’s own life. Like Maurice Conchis in John Fowles’s novel “The Magus” (1965), X was a master manipulator, drawing the unwitting Lucca into a seductive series of games.
Lacey’s remarkable debut novel, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” captured the disturbed mental drift of a young woman as she hitchhiked around New Zealand in a cloud of unprocessed grief. Lucca’s quest to “know” X is more focused, and she emerges by the end of the book as someone more certain. Declaring an uneasy truce with irresolution, she is aware that she’ll never know X, “as if we could ever say for certain where she ended and where the world began.”
Chris Kraus is the author of eight books, including “I Love Dick,” “Summer of Hate” and “After Kathy Acker: A Biography.”
Biography of X
By Catherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 394 pp. $28
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