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BookBrowse Reviews Biography of X by Catherine Lacey

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Biography of X by Catherine Lacey

Biography of X

A Novel

by Catherine Lacey
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  • First Published:
  • Mar 21, 2023
  • Paperback:
  • Mar 2024
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About This Book



A journalist seeks the truth about her wife in this alternate history slow-burn thriller.

Journalist CM Lucca, narrator of Catherine Lacey's Biography of X, is still grieving her recently deceased wife, a famous artist known primarily by the name X, when an unauthorized biography is released. The book claims to tell the true story of X's life, the details of which have been shrouded in mystery, even for CM. Bitter and determined to set the record straight, CM begins an investigation into the woman who was her wife. Traveling across the United States and Europe, she meets a vivid cast of eccentric characters — X's friends, lovers, collaborators and family members.

The novel is a work of alternate history, set primarily in the US in the 1990s. In this universe, the southern states seceded in the 1940s after a series of progressive pieces of legislation were passed by the Roosevelt administration, all of which were spearheaded by a fictionalized version of anarchist Emma Goldman (see Beyond the Book). In the novel, Goldman served in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet and attached radically progressive legislation to the New Deal, including same-sex marriage and prison abolition amendments. This provoked the secession, after which the South became a bastion of religious fundamentalism where gender roles and sexuality were strictly policed, by the government and private citizens alike. X, we learn, was one of the few people believed to have escaped the walled-in South during this period. In the '90s, the country is recently reunified, though there is tension between the North and South that boils over into terrorist violence. This premise heightens the dramatic tension and intrigue and makes X — who was essentially a refugee and fugitive — a more sympathetic character. Without it, X is largely a familiar archetype — the narcissistic artist whose bad behavior is forgiven because of the brilliance of their creative output.

Readers may have differing opinions on the novel's alternate universe setting. It introduces numerous worldbuilding details to keep track of, requiring extensive exposition from the narrator. Some situations feel contrived, as though the author is writing her way out of the constraints she has placed on her own story with such an elaborate atmosphere. Is it worth it? That will depend on how charming the individual reader finds the details and cameos, e.g., in this universe, X wrote and produced the David Bowie song "Heroes," drawing from her experience escaping the South. And while the setting offers a look at a progressive world different from our own, in which women and queer people, in the North at least, have not had their rights called into question for decades, the author is conspicuously silent on race. A random aside that "Systemic racism was clearly evidenced" in the higher incarceration rate for Black citizens in the South only draws more attention to the absence of commentary on race in CM's methodical detailing of her world.

As a series of stories about an eccentric and bizarre person, though, Biography of X has plenty of moments of brilliance. The thread relating to X's involvement with a washed-up folk singer named Connie Converse is funny and emotionally fraught by turns, as is X's obsessive friendship with her benefactor, Oleg Hall, who hated Connie, along with any other rival for X's time and attention, the narrator included.

The central premise that intrigued me was the question suggested by CM's quest: How well do we really know those we love, those we've chosen to spend our lives with? But CM's situation is so hyper-specific, her wife so willfully, intentionally unknowable, a literal master of disguise, that it lacks some of the universal appeal that might have otherwise invited readers to reflect on their own relationships.

What holds the novel together is suspense. As CM finds out more about her wife, it becomes clear that X had a history of using and manipulating people, and even the occasional act of violence. Each detail she learns causes CM to reevaluate her life with X and to recall incidents that seemed merely strange or upsetting in isolation but grouped together clearly indicate that this was an abusive relationship. It's genuinely chilling to watch it unfold. Lacey demonstrates, in disturbing and realistic detail, how emotional abuse can progress so slowly that the victim might not piece together the extent of what they've endured until much later, given enough distance and time to see things as they really were. As a result, despite a few questionable narrative choices, Biography of X is powerful, provocative and quietly disconcerting.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2023, and has been updated for the April 2024 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Emma Goldman


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