Catherine Lacey’s fourth novel, Biography of X, is a feat of technical brilliance, a fictional biography about a mysterious and notorious 20th-century artist known as X. The biographer is X’s widow, C.M. Lucca, who insists that she’s telling X’s story, but as her research into her wife’s past reveals more and more shocking surprises, it becomes clear that she’s actually telling her own story—and that of the country she lives in. In the novel’s America, most of the South seceded in 1945 to become the Southern Territory, a fascist theocracy divided from the Northern and Western territories by a wall and ruled by a ruthless autocratic dictatorship.
Though the novel’s world building lacks a critical engagement with race, which Lacey only mentions in passing, and though it sometimes feels more like a stylized thought experiment than a book with a beating, human heart, Biography of X is still a stunning achievement. It is nearly impossible not to get lost in Lacey’s exquisitely detailed version of America. Nothing about it feels fictional, from the extensive footnotes, images and assorted ephemera included, to the slightly altered references to real people and events (activist Emma Goldman and David Bowie, among others).
Even more compelling is the assuredness with which Lacey inhabits the persona of C.M. Lucca. There’s something unhinged and upsetting—but legible, even understandable, at times—in Lucca’s unwavering devotion to her late wife, even as she spirals deeper into the disturbing realities of X’s life and work. Lucca isn’t merely an unreliable narrator; her involvement in the story she’s trying to tell is too complicated and multilayered to be explained through a simple narrative device. Through Lucca, and through X, Lacey explores bigger, thornier questions about authorship and identity, art and futility, obsession and abuse. She pokes at reality and perspective, probing what it means to seek out the truth of another person, even—maybe especially—when that truth proves impossible to find.
Biography of X is a dazzling literary chimera, at once an epic and chilling alternate history of the United States and an intimate portrait of a woman coming apart at the seams. It is also, in its own subtle way, a love letter to writing and writers. With the pacing of a thriller and the careful consideration of a definitive biography, this is a sure and surprising novel that will haunt its readers for quite some time.