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Everything she knew about her wife was false — a faux biography finds the 'truth'

Macmillan

To those readers who prize "relatability," Catherine Lacey's latest novel may as well come wrapped in a barbed wire book jacket. There is almost nothing about Biography of X, as this novel is called, that welcomes a reader in — least of all, its enigmatic central character, a fierce female artist who died in 1996 and who called herself "X," as well as a slew of other names. Think Cate Blanchett as Tár, except more narcicisstic and less chummy.

When the novel opens, X's biography is in the early stages of being researched by her grieving widow, a woman called CM, who comes to realize that pretty much everything she thought she knew about her late wife was false. The fragmented biography of X that CM slowly assembles is shored up by footnotes and photographs, included here.

Real-life figures also trespass onto the pages of this biography to interact with X — who, I must remind you, is a made-up character. Among X's friends are Patti Smith, the former Weather Underground radical Kathy Boudin, and the beloved New York School poet, Frank O'Hara.

As if this narrative weren't splintered enough, Lacey's novel is also a work of alternate history, in which we learn that post-World War II America divided into three sections: The liberal Northern Territory where Emma Goldman served as FDR's chief of staff (don't let the dates trip you up); the Southern Territory, labeled a "tyrannical theocracy," and the off-the-grid "Western Territory." A violent "Reunification" of the Northern and Southern Territories has taken place, but relations remain hostile.

Feeling put off by all this experimental genre-bending? Don't be. For as much as Lacey has written a postmodern miasma of a novel about deception and the relationship of the artist to their work, she's also structured that novel in an old-fashioned way: via a Scheherazade-like sequence of stories. Most of these stories are about the charismatic X's life and fabrications; all of them are arresting in their originality; and, the final story that CM is led to, housed in a storage facility, is devastating in its calculated brutality.

But let's return to the beginning. In what CM calls the "boneless days" in the aftermath of of X's death, she tells us that:

"It wasn't a will to live that kept me alive then, but rather a curiosity about who else might come forward with a story about my wife. ... And might I — despite how much I had deified and worshipped X and believed her to be pure genius — might I now accept the truth of her terrible, raw anger and boundless cruelty? It was the ongoing death of a story, dozens of second deaths, the death of all those delicate stories I lived in with her."

I hesitate to mention any of revelations CM stumbles upon in the course of her research into X — a person CM says, "lived in a play without intermission in which she cast herself in every role." Watching those bizarre costume changes take place on these pages is part of the pleasure of reading this novel. It's not giving much away, though, to say that one of the earliest shockers here is that X, who arrived in New York in the 1970s ready to create experimental music with David Bowie and pricey conceptual art out of boulders, actually was born Carrie Lu Walker into the repressive Handmaid's Tale world of the Southern Territory.

Hiding her own identity as X's widow, CM travels to the Southern Territory to interview X's parents — a risky move in a land where women who deviate from the repressive norm are still stoned to death. During this research trip and the many that follow, CM also investigates the mystery of her own metamorphosis: namely, how did she — a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist — allow herself to be drawn into what Emily Dickinsoncalled the "soft Eclipse" of being a wife, the very same kind of wife the folks in the Southern Territory would approve of? X may not be relatable, but, as we come to know her, the duped CM certainly is.

"The trouble with knowing people," CM says at one point, "is how the target keeps moving." The same could be said of Lacey's brilliant, destabilizing novel. Just when you think you have a handle on Biography of X, it escapes the stack of assumptions where you thought you'd put it, like a profile or an obituary you'd started reading in yesterday's tossed-out paper.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.