Book review: Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey

Set in an alternative America, where a secessionist South has become a theocratic regime, Catherine Lacey’s remarkable new novel is about love and how it damages and grief and how it burns, writes Stuart Kelly

My friends, and occasional readers, will have “become accustomed to my taste”. That is a deliberate misquotation from My Fair Lady, and seems apposite to misquote for reasons that will become evident. I have a certain penchant for novels with footnotes and endnotes – Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, House Of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, to name a few. This remarkable novel has both footnotes and endnotes, and is fond indeed of misquotation, wrenching sentences into new contexts, what the Situationists called detournement. It is even, I suppose, not by Catherine Lacey at all, as there is another page inside asserting it to be the work of CM Lucca (who notably does not “assert her moral right” to be considered the author, and with what seems to be an ISBN number I am yet to crack).

CM Lucca is writing a biography or memoir of her wife, in order to address what she sees as egregious errors in a bestselling biography of the eponymous “X”. The book is a wonderful series of rabbit holes. “X” is a myriad; a novelist, artist, musician, provocateur, strip-club dancer film-maker, and X has also been Dorothy, Bee, Luella, Marley, Joan and Angel before she settles on X. X is the term in algebra from an unknown quantity, and she is determined to be unknowable; hence her wife’s objection to the expedient biography shortly after her death. But X is also an unknown unknown: it means very different things if I put an x on a birthday card or an x after an incorrect piece of arithmetic. It is also the sign used for hybridisation in botany, and collaborations in aesthetics. It also marks the spot, and the impeccable X will not be pinned down for good reasons.

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X variously works with David Bowie, Connie Converse, the radical Ted Gold, Tom Waits and Ross McElwee, meets Andy Warhol and doesn’t like him, and is interviewed by the critic Robert Storr, to whom she says “this is a poetically licensed story”. She is a strange connective tissue over the culture of the period, and is carnaptious, sarcastic, unreliable, duplicitous, downright cruel and inspires great love. So an “x” indeed. The endnotes reveal the sources which the quotes within the text are actually from, although whether they are accurately transcribed has a patina of doubt. Lucca, perhaps by proximity to X, is equally multiple, being both aggrieved and needy, self-doubting and self-important. I did wonder if she is akin to Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, the man who annotates the poems of John Shade and realises they are all about him. She is the self-effacing egotist, the abnegating control.

Catherine Lacey PIC: Willy SommaCatherine Lacey PIC: Willy Somma
Catherine Lacey PIC: Willy Somma

But what is the reason for X being such a chameleon? It is not just a take on avant-garde art from the post-war period. The problem is genre, because X is not living in our world; nor are any of the other characters. As well as being a faux-memoir, a cultural history and a book about eroticism, it is a counter-factual. The America Lucca and X inhabit has a markedly different history. America has always been hallucinating its own fracturing, corruption and dictatorships, even before the Twittering Tangerine Tyrant emerged. It is there in Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, the graphic work Captain Confederacy by Will Shetterly and most recently in Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise. In Lacey’s version, a secessionist South has become a theocratic regime, and much of the description of it relies on accounts of life in the former GDR and North Korea. But the North, though much more liberal – it has indeed legalised gay marriage – is stalled in perpetual hand-wringing. That X may or may not have been born in the South might be a reason for her desire to adopt new identities.

This plays out on the level of syntax. Lacey’s prose has a haunting self-echo, where words are repeated or revised. “I abstained for myself, just as you, too, may on occasion abstain from yourself. What a relief, what a relief it was” or “not a father like my father had been, of course, but a real father”. The timbre of the sentences is exceptionally well handled, and even acts like a sleight of hand. You don’t query the false artefacts and fake references when the writing itself is so accomplished.

Sifting the footnotes, I was taken by the fact that though there are references to Susan Sontag and Kathy Acker (both of whom appear in the alternate universe), there is one quote which has been retooled from Hélène Cixous. It is a little nugget and nudge towards a key thinker about gender and philosophy. But if the book were just a little puzzle box for me to noodle around in, it would be insufficient. It is about love, and how it damages, and grief, and how it burns.

Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey, Granta, £18.99