The problem with biography is that it’s impossible. Have you ever tried to write down the thoughts, the emotions, the memories that bubble up in a person over sixty seconds; where she is; what she’s wearing; what she can smell, taste and hear; who she’s with; what she’s saying; not to mention what contribution this 0.069 per cent of a day is making to the meaning of her life? C.M. Lucca, the writer created by Catherine Lacey to narrate her fourth novel, Biography of X, at least has the guts to admit the problem. Lucca is also the author of a book called Biography of X, as well as being the widow of the polymathic artist called X (1945-96) who is its subject, a mercurial female genius who wrote novels, produced music and made art of various kinds, her career capped by a MoMA retrospective. ‘I cannot explain my wife or myself for even a moment longer and I confess all this now, full of well-earned shame that I should have known better than to have even tried to explain even a minute of her life,’ Lucca thinks as she runs out of the installation her wife was working on when she died.
Lucca calls her shame well-earned because she knows X thought being written about biographically was an insult to the way she’d chosen to live. In 1992, Lucca herself had been instructed by X to discourage Theodore Smith, an interested biographer. ‘Her life will not become a historical object,’ Lucca says during a meeting with him in a café. ‘Only her work will remain.’ But when X dies unexpectedly four years later, Smith sells his book, and the publisher invites Lucca to a consultation before it goes to press. ‘The cinder block of a manuscript sat on the table, practically radiant with inanity.’ Among the inanities are the approach (‘Just, you know, day by day,’ Smith says); the thinness caused by his lack of access to the archive, to Lucca, or to X herself; the writing (‘page by page, line by line, without interruption, worthless’, Lucca says); and the many serious errors, including the most infuriating one, getting X’s birthplace wrong. The book must be discredited. But years later, Lucca’s ‘journalistic tendencies had taken over … and now I was intent on understanding the parts of her that I had not known when she was still alive.’ The quest to understand a person, though, even or especially someone you know as well as your own wife, is as impossible as writing a minute’s biography. Demolishing Smith’s book feels like a lifeline in the dark early days of Lucca’s grief, when hours can disappear in the gap between getting out of the shower and putting on clothes. Instead she wonders: who will come forward next with information about a hidden corner of X’s life? Who was I to her? Who am I if she is dead? X turns out to have concealed many existences from her accidental biographer.
You might already have noticed something about Lucca’s voice: it is not her own. In the New York Review of Books of 14 August 1980, Renata Adler described Pauline Kael’s latest collection of essays as ‘piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless’ – what Lucca says of Smith’s book. Lacey alerts us to her borrowings in an author’s note directing the reader to the end of the book, where they will find ‘attributions not mentioned in the text’. After the note, like a slow fade in a movie, there is a black spread of pages, a charcoal grey spread, a dove grey spread, then a white page with a black border: ‘Biography of X by C.M. Lucca’. The conceit of the novel is that it is a fictional biography, with fake footnotes, but real endnotes that reveal the sources Lacey used to create X, her wife and the world she lived in. There are real people, more or less well-known (Rachel Aviv, Joshua Rivkin, Chiara Barzini), in the fictional footnotes, and real people (Kathy Acker, David Bowie, Connie Converse) in the fiction, and real people (Susan Sontag, Fleur Jaeggy, Kaitlin Phillips) in the real endnotes. Lacey has said her intent was random and irreverent – ‘There’s no hidden agenda or code,’ she told the New York Times – but it is also pragmatic. How many novels about artists fail to convince because we are told, rather than shown, that their subject is a genius? In this novel, Lucca sounds like a writer because she is, at moments, Renata Adler, and X sounds like a genius because she is variously Toni Morrison, Cy Twombly, Susan Sontag, Cindy Sherman, Susan Howe, Richard Hell, Clarice Lispector, Bob Dylan and Edie Sedgwick. (Not an exhaustive list – and if it doesn’t cohere, well, the Zelig-like career of an artist like X isn’t meant to.) Not all the references to currently working writers in the footnotes seem worthwhile (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is the same Pulitzer-winner she is in real life), and there are slips (the New York Review of Books doesn’t publish profiles), but the world is, by and large, convincing.
The book feels densely populated, like a party where you keep getting distracted from the conversation you’re having because people keep walking in. Lacey began work on the novel in 2016, after being advised against writing a real biography of a living subject by an old writing teacher, but Biography of X also feels like the sort of novel you’d write in order to be with your friends when you can’t be with them, during a worldwide pandemic following the discovery of a novel zoonotic disease, say. Lacey’s tissue of quotations often seems to be a way of making friends: the novelist recruited as an interviewer; the critic whose review is said to be the ‘only legitimate’ one; the person whose tweets have been made into aphorisms; the writers who don’t know Lacey but will detect the admiration in the name-drop. ‘Anyone will stab you in the back to get ahead,’ X is warned by an older artist when she says she wants to go to New York, ‘and no one wants anything to do with you unless you’re ahead of them in the game, and even then what they most want is to defeat you, take your place.’ One of X’s great skills is navigating the social world of writers, agents, gallerists, rivals, lovers, lover-rivals, fans, stalkers, patrons and enemies in late 20th-century Gotham. She does this by not caring. She burns bridges, even whole identities, abandoning one career after another. A different way – Lacey’s footnoted way perhaps – is to start the long process of finding out who your friends are by assuming that everyone could be your friend, and that in a city of eight million people there is room for artists of all sorts to make their mark.
In many of Lacey’s previous novels, society is a dangerous place, and relationships are even worse. In her first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014), Elyria has fled New York for New Zealand, simply disappearing from her marriage instead of talking to her husband. Was he ever her partner anyway? ‘Stranger plus time equals husband,’ she thinks. ‘Husband divided by time equals stranger.’ In The Answers (2017), Mary has abandoned her family, been ghosted by her best friend, and decides to become an actor’s fake ‘emotional girlfriend’ for money. By the end of the book, even a cactus seems too needy: ‘All those people, getting in the way of each other – how do we even stand it? How do we make our way around?’ In Lacey’s third novel, Pew (2020), the eponymous hero turns up in a Southern town and says nothing, not even defining their name, gender or race – which the other characters take as an occasion to talk about themselves. One day Pew takes a walk with a retired man: ‘In our silence, I felt as if something had been given back to me that I’d lost a long time ago.’
In some ways, these people are romantics who idealise relationships so much that they can’t be in them, but Elyria, Mary and Pew also display what has been called ‘dissociative feminism’: they give up rather than shout themselves hoarse, shrug at their emotional flatness instead of despairing over it. In the past, one of the problems Lacey set herself was to keep the narrative going when the main characters don’t do or feel much of anything, or talk to the people around them: can a novel carry on under those circumstances? Just about, she discovered. But she found better solutions in her short-story collection, Certain American States (2018), where she managed to create conflict without bringing her characters into contact. ‘Violations’ is powered by an ex-husband reading a published version of himself written by his ex-wife; in ‘Please Take’, a woman leaves her dead husband’s clothes out on the stoop, and talks to the people who pick them up. Lucca and X, unlike these earlier characters, are people who travel, ask, refuse, associate, get photographed and written about: Lacey has taken the worry about social life – which might be a fascination with it – and integrated it into a highly social novel.
She has long been interested in whom artists love and why. In 2017, she made an illustrated book, The Art of the Affair, with Forsyth Harmon, which traced relationships between artists and writers in the mid-20th century. ‘Seen a certain way,’ Lacey wrote in the introduction, ‘the history of art and literature is a history of all this love,’ the ‘unseen scaffolding’ of an artist’s work. Gérard Genette called the paratextual elements of a book – the cover, title page, footnotes and so on – its ‘threshold’, but what if they are its scaffolding? What is holding up these made-up stories if not all of us, who believe in them, write them, review them? We are Biography of X, it turns out, which won’t surprise anyone who has read ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes, like Genette, is missing from Lacey’s sources).
To find out where X was born, Lucca goes to Missoula, Montana, where the ID X used when she first arrived in New York was issued. She tracks down the co-worker who fell in love with X and helped her obtain that driving licence, and he tells her that X’s real name was Caroline Luanna Walker Vine, or Carrie Lu, her real birth year was 1945 and her real birthplace was Byhalia, Mississippi. This information is much more revealing than it might be, because in Biography of X the United States split in two at the end of the Second World War, in what is known as the Great Disunion. Theocratic authoritarians governed the Southern Territory from behind a wall. Emma Goldman, who had become chief of staff under FDR, reshaped the Northern Territory in the years preceding 1945 to such an extent that healthcare was free, same-sex marriage unhindered and prisons abolished (we wish). The wall had gone up on Thanksgiving in 1945, when the Southern Territory’s leaders became convinced that an invasion from communist Northern forces was imminent. Sometimes in the novel the utopia is as undetectable as clean air: Lacey has to point out in an endnote how remarkable it is that someone in a mental health crisis can walk into a clinic and be diagnosed by a psychologist, be prescribed the drugs she needs and leave the same day, as one character does. The wall came down in 1996, but for the fifty years it stood, very few people were known to have crossed the border – this posthumous revelation too makes X exceptional.
Against the book’s impulse to make friends is the idea that political separation may be the only way certain desirable civic conditions can come to pass. Lacey has said that creating a political near-paradise (though even here, the leftists still like in-fighting) seemed to her necessary in order to write freely about same-sex marriage in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The cultural changes are connected to the political ones: in 1943, Southern Territory supporters killed Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and twelve other male artists at a gallery opening, but spared the women. ‘Male artists pursued careers with the burden of explaining or accounting for the global history of male violence and destruction,’ Lucca says of the aftermath of the Painters’ Massacre. ‘Few took on the task, and those who did were often ridiculed.’ The fun is in imagining what it would take to make women the centre of the art world – as long as you don’t take the murderous answer too seriously.
One of the questions biography as a genre can address is whether people can change. Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes Marilyn Monroe, but does she ever leave her foster-home childhood behind? Lucca’s discovery of X’s childhood and early adulthood in Mississippi makes sense of many of her artworks, but X’s story as a whole stands for the glittering possibility of change in all of our lives. (And it is baked into Lacey’s method of collaging her biographical subject: X’s lack of unity as a character becomes the meaning.) ‘You are not your name, you are not what you have done, you are not what people see, you are not what you see or what you have seen,’ X writes in the catalogue for her 1982 work The Human Subject, in sentences created rather than borrowed. ‘You may insist such an escape is not possible. Indeed, it is not possible; however, attempting the impossible is always possible, always imperative.’ Along with the exceptional freedom X allows herself come cruelty and deception, something she isn’t deluded about, and which sometimes she is willing to defend.
In one of my favourite episodes of X’s life, she joins the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective in 1976 as Martina Riggio, falling in love with the historical figure Carla Lonzi, who wrote the pamphlet Let’s Spit on Hegel. Martina’s origin story, which involved being kidnapped from Italy by a dastardly American uncle, was laughable, but ‘even if she was lying about the uncle,’ Carla’s friend Gioia told Lucca, ‘that might even be OK, since patriarchy is a fiction, too, or that’s how I felt then.’ But Gioia doesn’t remember Martina fondly. Martina walked out on Carla one day after an argument, leaving her with breast cancer and a broken heart. ‘I try not to hate anyone,’ Gioia says, ‘but I can’t seem to stop myself – I still hate her. I know she didn’t give Carla cancer, but I don’t have any other explanations.’ Researching the biography brings Lucca into contact with many people who have been hurt by her wife, and the question of whether a person can change becomes pressing in another sense: did she overlook the cruelty of the woman she was married to? Did she enable it?
At their first encounter, Lucca didn’t fall in love with X so much as with the ‘different way of life’ she offered: ‘I only felt that I had been changed – though being changed by a person is far more dangerous than simply loving them.’ No one has more power over you than someone you believe has changed you. Lucca, having never felt ‘so unafraid and clear in my life’, leaves her husband and moves in with X. She had been a ‘nervous young woman’ who worked as a newspaper journalist, but as her marriage with X went on, she became more self-confident, as Adler was when she reviewed Kael, but also more subservient: she did the cooking, she told the biographers to cease and desist, she accepted that if she left the apartment in the middle of dinner to fetch parmesan, X might not be there when she got back, and might not return for several weeks. ‘I deified her then and for a long time after, believed her to be an oracle, almost inhuman.’ Whatever was missing from Lucca’s sense of herself, X seems to have had in ample supply.
Lucca is alive to the idea that no one ever knows another fully, even spouses, but she comes to see that her marriage tipped from dependent to unhealthy and finally to abusive. Yet she cannot easily disentangle herself. Her relationship with X made her the person who could write this book. ‘The moment she was gone I ceased to be whoever I thought I was,’ Lucca says at the start of Biography of X; ‘Is it possible that the best thing to happen in your life could also be the worst?’ she thinks in the middle; ‘No matter how much I want her memory gone, gone completely, she will not leave me,’ she says at the end. At the beginning, Lucca is catatonic with grief, a sister to the dissociated protagonists of Lacey’s previous books, and then gradually she wakes up to the cruelty of the person she was married to. Did she need X in order to live a different life? Was X’s view of her writing really the only one that mattered? If only Lucca could read her reviews, she might be reassured by the answers.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.