Book cover: A fragmented collage of portrait photographs.

Catherine Lacey
Biography of X

Penning the catalogue essay for her magnum opus The Human Subject, the “groundbreaking, multihyphenate” artist X describes a conceptual project blurring creator and creation. “I leased my body to a theater beyond my direction,” X writes. “The director was the world itself.”

Vitrines showcase the material artefacts of various personas – who themselves adopted personas – performed in the preceding decade. X is both a controversial experimental filmmaker and the woman who claims he took her hostage. X is a cult author, the pseudonym of a socialite, herself the disguise of a radical feminist publisher wanted for tax evasion. Was X a chameleon or a charlatan? A genius or a grifter? Critics and acolytes at least agree that X possessed an uncanny ability to channel the zeitgeist.

Before descending any further into her legend, I should stress X is the subject of a fictional biography, which is in fact United States author Catherine Lacey’s fourth novel. The reason the larger-than-life artist seems real is because she kind of is. X is a collage of real-world figures, the expansive index citing New York icons such as Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, Kathy Acker and Edie Sedgwick, some of whom also appear as characters in this dizzying web of metatextuality.

X’s story is being written by her widow, C. M. Lucca, a former investigative journalist who shed her own identity to become the artistic polymath’s wife. C claims she’s correcting falsehoods in an unauthorised hack job, though her own unanswered questions take over. X’s unexpected passing brings with it “the death of all those delicate stories I lived in with her”.

Research takes C across a speculative North America, which after World War II was partitioned into a libertarian West, fascist theocratic South and progressively utopian North where, in a historical twist, women came to dominate the art world. This impish inversion spotlights the gendered hierarchies of artistic myth-making – how the qualities deified in male geniuses are vilified in female counterparts – but this isn’t a pat plea for more women art monsters.

Lacey’s ambitious, layered, playful, irreconcilable book is driven by mortal conundrums, quotidian yet unanswerable, which her oeuvre returns to: that perhaps art, religion and love are attempts to transcend our singularity; that people contain multitudes, straining against the stories others project onto them; that a life cannot be contained on the page. Especially not the life of X, an artist as protean and mercurial as the world that spawned her.

Granta, 416pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Biography of X".

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