Kirkus Reviews QR Code
BIOGRAPHY OF X by Catherine Lacey Kirkus Star


by Catherine Lacey

Pub Date: March 21st, 2023
ISBN: 978-0-374-60617-6
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A widow sets out to uncover the truth about her late wife, a mercurial artist who adopted many personas, in this audacious intellectual history of an alternate America.

C.M. Lucca is a former crime reporter who resents the inaccuracies printed in the only biography of her wife, X, a famous performance artist who has recently died. Determined to correct the record, C.M. begins reporting on her wife's mysterious origins and career as a shape-shifting provocateur. "When she died, all I knew about X's distant past was that she'd arrived in New York in 1972. She never told me her birthdate or birthplace, and she never adequately explained why these things were kept secret," C.M. explains. Was X really born in the Southern Territory, a theocratic dictatorship separated from the Northern Territory for 50 years by a wall? If so, how did she escape? And how did her childhood shape the artist she was to become? C.M.'s reporting trips put her face to face with former spouses, lovers, revolutionaries, terrorists, friends, and hangers-on, but a clear picture of X remains elusive. Instead, Lacey creates a portrait of a biographer haunted by grief, struggling to untangle love from abjection, fiction from reality, art from life. "At first I had rules for researching X's life and I followed them...I have broken every rule I ever set for myself," C.M. mourns midway through the biography. "And now I am busy, so busy, day and night, ruining my life." Throughout C.M.'s manuscript, Lacey includes footnotes and citations from imagined articles by real contemporary writers whose names readers well versed in cultural criticism will recognize. The effect is pleasurable and disorienting, like reading a book in a dream or surfacing a memory that's gone fuzzy around the edges. As C.M. circles closer to the truth about X, her memories about X's violent tendencies become clearer and sharper. "I did not know her, and I do not know who she was," C.M. admits at last. "I do not know anything of that woman, though I did love her—on that point I refuse to concede—and it was a maddening love and it was a ruthless love and it refuses to be contained."

Breathtaking in its scope and rigor, this unforgettable novel pushes contemporary fiction to dizzying heights. A triumph.