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Biography of X by Catherine Lacey: Unorthodox portrait of a revered artist by her grieving widow

This frenetic, restless narrative showcases the author’s ingenuity and impressive intellect

Biography of X
Author: Catherine Lacey
ISBN-13: 9781783789276
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £18.99

“I became, completely, X’s wife, her wife in the most archaic sense of the word – I managed all her appointments, cooked, did the shopping, cleaned the house, went to places she said I should go to and did whatever she thought I should do.”

Catherine Lacey’s new book, Biography of X, is an unorthodox portrait of a revered, enigmatic artist by her grieving widow. The narrator of this intriguing book is C, a former investigative journalist who abandoned her career and her husband for the unpredictable X, devoting her life to a person who revelled in false identities, secrets, betrayals and various other cruelties that are uncovered by her widow over the course of a frenetic, restless narrative.

As the title suggests, the focus of the book is X, a narcissist who made a career out of personas and performances, a shapeshifter with a fierce intelligence, a polymath who has been critically and commercially successful as an artist, musician and writer. In short, a star. We are told that X has multiple identities because “a single name simply failed to contain her”.

Eccentric, self-obsessed and magnetic, her short courtship of C – and we suspect many before her – is all smoke and daggers, full of mystery and danger. There is a wanton destructiveness to X that makes for compelling reading. The form of the book, a fictionalised biography written by C, brings to mind literary figures such as Patricia Highsmith or Jean Rhys, both of whom have had their messy personal lives (and personalities) scrutinised in brilliant biographies in recent years.


Lacey was born in Mississippi and is the author of the novels Nobody Is Ever Missing, The Answers and Pew, and the short story collection Certain American States. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Pen/Jean Stein Book Award, she was also named, in 2017, as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

Biography of X showcases Lacey’s ingenuity and her impressive intellect. In its dissection of a troubled marriage from the perspective of the quieter party, it recalls novels such as Charlotte Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist and Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife. But Lacey is aiming for something grander and more intricate, a postmodern narrative that seeks to highlight the fallibility of stories, particularly the ones we tell ourselves.

The author goes to great lengths to authenticate her “biography”. There are photographs, letters, diary entries, interview transcripts, footnotes, all of which add to the illusion that we are reading about a real person. There is a judicious blend of factual and fictional detail. Famous names crop up throughout the book, carefully selected celebrities who have, like X, an almost mythic quality: Kurt Cobain, Denis Johnson, Tom Waits, Susan Sontag (“X’s occasional friend and occasional enemy”) and the greatest shapeshifter of all, David Bowie. It’s a lot of fun, for a while.

Cumulatively, however, all the related action is tiring. The book’s inventiveness with form is also its biggest flaw: the vast majority of the narrative is reported speech. C’s numerous interviews with sources from X’s early life result in more reported stories, a factor of having a dead central character perhaps, but there are ways around this. On the few occasions that Lacey does give us full scenes of C and X in the past, the dynamic of their marriage really comes to life. Dramatised action allows space for the reader to make up their own mind.

There is also a question mark over the author’s choice to introduce a dystopian backdrop to the story by having X come from the “Southern Territory”, a fascist theocracy that split from the rest of America after the second World War, and which has only recently reached an uneasy reunion. Although the imagined state is meticulously detailed and depressingly authentic, it seems to take the shine off the mystery of X, whose mercurial personality is almost more interesting if she comes from the world as we know it.

These issues are mitigated by the quality of Lacey’s prose. She is a first-rate stylist who packs a phenomenal amount of insight into her sentences. From the superb opening line to her skewering of the art world and its pretensions, her discernments on grief and loss, the book is endlessly quotable: “New lovers are always digging their graves and lying down, smiling, scooping the dirt in with their clean hands.” Come for the glamorous premise, stay for the icy precision of the prose. “I never intended to write a corrective biography,” C says at one point. Instead she has given us a convincing portrait of an art monster, from the chilly perspective of a lover scorned.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts