By Stuart M. Ross
Geoff Dyer in 2003: “It is no good calling a character Dave if he is not a Dave. But equally, if you refer to a character as X as a temporary expedient, it will only impede his acquiring the characteristics appropriate to his name, which might well turn out to be Brett or Sebastian or Stan.” I wondered, reading Biography of X, if Catherine Lacey’s X were an X all along, or in early drafts Lolita, Susan, Kathy, Norman or Eileen, and how early on Lacey knew X had to be X, that X would be her way through.
The novel tells the story of the problematic X, who these days we’d call an “art monster,” in other days we’d called an icon. Its fictional author, C.M. Lucca, was X’s last spouse, a muse, and a victim—sometimes, Lucca tells us, she felt more like a mobster’s wife than an artist’s. After X’s death, Lucca writes the book we’re reading, partly as an act of revenge against X’s male biographer, partly, as she speculates the reason anyone writes any book, “to put her troubles in a pleasing order so that someone else will look at it,” but mostly she writes the book to sift and sort her way through an archive of grief, and to accomplish that unenviable task of all unreliable narrators: setting the record straight.
X could be anything. She can also be anywhere. Hers was a “groundbreaking, multihyphenate career.” You know who X is. You’ve waited for her to show up, gotten scared once she she did, she would never get mistaken for someone else at a party. You’ve praised her to her face, insulted her to her back. You’ve dismissed the fiction and praised the journalism. Gump as a verb, to describe the act of an author photoshopping into history their creations, has appeared in more than one book review lately, and gumping is part of Lacey’s strategy here. We read about X brainstorming with David Bowie, dashing off arthouse novels on Sontag-levels of speed, and performing the performance art that inspires Republicans to defund the NEA. Richard Serra marks X an “art cunt.” By that I think Richard Serra means how Don DeLillo describes Klara Sax in Underworld: “She looked famous and rare, famous even to herself, famous alone making a salad in the kitchen.” X charms the New York gallerist who “sells it, but doesn’t particularly like any of it,” teaches an FBI agent “how to do a fake beard,” leads a gothic ex-lover to the conclusion “there’s no such thing as the past,” and raises dachshunds in Connecticut with the African American starter wife. She accepts industry awards wearing dark sunglasses, tells Barbara Walters on national television she’d prefer to remain a “shadowy figure,” tells Brian Lehrer on WNYC she “believes very strongly in fascism and that we need a dictatorial right-wing tyranny.” We need a drink.
X earns every fertile inch of Manhattan island. Like all monsters, she doesn’t require the standard appellations. “I always understood,” she writes in one of her books, “before I understood anything else, that I was X, that I had no other name, that all other names put upon me were lies.” I found myself comparing X to another recent female art monster, Lydia Tár, née the Staten Island Linda, and I understood Lacey’s novel the way I understood that film, for the ways it asserts the value of the artist’s life. Unlike Tár, X dies before she can be truly demoted. “Life is too short for this,” a heckler yells at her during a performance, and she replies, Tár-like, “what is it long enough for?”
“What bothers me about writing,” X says after receiving a rejection letter, “is that I’m here and the page is there.” That all-too-human distinction shapes the formal constraints of Lacey’s novel. The front and back matter of Biography of X carefully distinguishes what is Lucca’s and what is Lacey’s, including two author photos, two separate image sources, and one set of flailing endnotes that reveal what Lucca, via Lacey, has “borrowed” from other works and gumped into the mouths of fictional speakers.
In this kind of postmodern edifice, an author admits the risk their pirated material might be more engaging than the original. Often I found myself reacting to a passage—that’s amazing! only to check the endnotes and learn it was first said by someone else. Readers of anglophone novels have been trained to believe, going back to Emerson and through Burroughs and Acker, onto something like the David Markson project, and a fuckton of other projects, including Lacey’s project here, that surfacing material is the equivalent of composing it. Biography of X is billed, correctly, as a novel, but we don’t refer to such books as novels so much as works, objects, texts. But I enjoyed this novel best when I forgot about projects and what the work interrogates, when I forgot about the endnotes, when I was in the emotional space of Lucca’s grief, when I was in the depths of one of X’s many swipes at a life. Still, the novel taught me, like every novel, how to be disappointed by it. When I underlined something amazing, I needed to check the endnotes to see who said it. Usually, it was Lacey who “said it.” I considered ripping the endnotes out of the beautifully designed book, committing the punk act that, for whatever reason, its author couldn’t.
Why not? It’s hard to answer but worth raising. Whether today’s authors won’t steal out of aesthetic principles or because the multinational corporate teams behind the mass production of their products won’t allow it. Writing in the New Yorker, the critic Audrey Wollen wonders if Lacey’s “narrative strategies are even legal.” For me, today’s narrative strategies aren’t illegal enough. I would like to trust authors less than I do. I would like to be disappointed by our geniuses more often. Is Lacey’s audience literature itself, already a fragment of fragments, or friends, followers, notetakers, screengrabbers? Is it even possible for a professional like Lacey or a semi-retired professional like Lucca, both of them publishing novels with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to field such questions? What kind of thief is Lucca? There are many deft Acker-lite writers today, more and more novels with conclusive endnotes. See, instead, the brief endnote to In Memoriam to Identity, which deadpans the whole work as stolen. Or the relatively fuller endnotes in Dyer’s Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which begin by admitting “there are, obviously, some unacknowledged (mis)quotations in the text.” Such strategies seem ancient yet cool today. Acker’s fuckoff approach, Dyer’s hard-fought laziness, is hard to locate, unfashionable to elevate, and dangerous to praise. In a recent Bookforum interview, the writer Lauren Elkin reveals she uses endnotes to prove she’s “not just some schmo writing about getting turned on by Kathy Acker,” but also admits she “admire[s] writing that just gets on with it without constantly footnoting itself.” Me too. Of course, I do get the litigious appeal. “The bourgeois writer,” writes McKenzie Wark, in a recent buoy in the sea of Acker books, “is an acquisitive animal. What it writes it owns.” Maybe that’s why my rental agreement is twenty-one pages long, with nineteen pages of endnotes that tell me bed bugs are a serious issue, and my landlord isn’t responsible for them.
Biography of X takes place in an alt-history America whose vengeful spirit will remind many readers of The Handmaid’s Tale. The main event was the Great Disunion of 1945, when a big wall went up between the relatively liberal north— where for a long time it was still legal for a “CEO to earn thousand times over their company’s entry-level salary”—and the theocratic south, a place you sense Lacey, originally from Mississippi, feels in her bones. But as a reader I must admit, for how disappointed I am by endnotes, I’m even more exhausted by alt-America. Isn’t this America enough? In Lacey’s, President Bernie Sanders gets blamed for bringing fascism in the early 1990s, trying to repair the damage done by this Trump-era novel’s Trump stand-in, a female who rouses X to fascism. Wollen, writing on this salty buffet, notes “the entirety of the civil-rights movement [gets] wiped out in a parenthetical.” An interesting choice, perhaps, for a writer from Mississippi. It’s a reminder that white American writers are better off not confronting race, and they won’t play with race the way they play with everything else. You can’t blame them. Professional white artists have been through a long 21st century being told what they can and cannot popularly do, from Kenneth Goldsmith’s ignominious “The Body of Michael Brown” to Dana Schutz’s maudlin “Open Casket” to hundreds or perhaps thousands of cancellations that didn’t merit their own New Yorker explainers or careful exegesis in Maggie Nelson’s Freedom. In Lacey’s alt-America, Bernie Sanders can cuddle up to white supremacists but Malcolm X can’t use his reparations check to buy Twitter and let his libertarian friends back on.
Art booms get remixed, too. To outline a typically dizzying example: “A mob of Southern separatists stormed an opening at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York, killing fourteen male artists while sparing all the women.” Soon after, a fictional critic named Richard Cusk publishes “Male Artists: Can They Really Be Artists?” which, as the endnotes tell us, is a reversal of the same question IRL Rachel Cusk posed about female artists, a question X rebuts in her fictional work The Human Subject, based on, I think, the IRL work of Cindy Sherman. It can sound like dorm room stoner talk, which is something I love about it. What I love less about it, even though I feel a little disingenuous saying this, is that in the cogent haze of reading a novel, I’m expected to move back and forth between endnotes and the main text to sort this all out. Wollen, lamenting Lacey’s mash-ups from a feminist position, wonders why we “create Frankenstein’s monsters out of the corpses of feminist intellectuals.” It’s fun, of course, late empire style, to pretend Ronald Reagan was a member of the Green Party. It’s just not as much fun as it used to be. It’s starting to feel like a way to welcome the fascism we fear.
Biography of X got my mind prevaricating, fantasia-impromptu, made me rethink, like all hefty novels do, why I bother with them in the first place. I went to them first to see myself reflected back, easy for a sensitive white boy. But soon enough, perhaps sooner than I now remember, I found myself more interested in the novel’s unusual power to turn furniture into feelings. Those moments, as Wallace Stevens writes in “Description Without Place,” when “observing is completing and we are content,” with that pun on content that pisses us off today. And often, in this satisfied space, I return to Nabokov’s comment that what he was most proud of in Lolita was the description of a haircut. I imagine Lacey saying what she’s proudest of in Biography of X is C.M. Lucca’s description of this restaurant:
“We met at a Japanese restaurant with high-backed wooden booths, a location I’d chosen purposefully. It was small and busy, but the staff never seemed hurried. Each table was cocooned with wooden panels and thick curtains, lending a lulling sense of privacy. I’d once had lunch there with a magazine editor I wanted to work with, but by the time the check arrived I had divulged too many details about my personal life—stories I rarely told anyone—that I was too embarrassed to ever face him again. In retrospect, I blamed the space itself.”
“My poor Lolita is having a rough time,” Nabokov wrote to Grahame Greene about the novel’s reception. “The pity is that if I had made her a boy, or a cow, or a bicycle, Philistines might never have flinched.” Lolita as X. “I’d never, ever reached,” Lucca writes with clasping tenderness, “the end of anything, even the things I was glad to be done with, with any feeling other than grief. Every school or university I’d ever attended, for instance, had provided nothing but miserable, friendless years, and yet I cried at every graduation.” The novel should play to win, but this novel plays to draw. I blame the space itself.
“Form is determined not by arbitrary content but by intention,” Acker said late in life, sounding like her early mentor David Antin. “And intentionality is all, I guess that’s what you’d say. You don’t look at the finger pointing at the moon, you look at the moon.” In Biography of X, Catherine Lacey certainly delivers the finger. Her moon varies, perhaps three of them: Europa, Titania, Charon.
Stuart M. Ross is a writer from Queens living in Chicago. He is the author of The Hotel Egypt (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2024) and Jenny in Corona (Tortoise Books, 2019)