Review: Biography of X

Biography of X: A Novel
Catherine Lacey, 416 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux,, $28

Art can be a curious thing. One person’s masterpiece is another’s mess — “my kid could draw that,” as the old saying goes. But it can also be a painful thing. A tightrope walk of a novel, Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X deftly weaves speculative fiction and fact into a story about love and abuse, a relationship turned sour and the lengths one will go to for their art.

Told as a fictional biography of a fictional artist, Biography of X blurs the lines between fact and fiction, creating a mirror world where everything is askew. After Emma Goldman is elected Vice-President, the US splits apart into three zones: a socialist Northern Territory, a libertarian Western Territory and the Southern Territory’s fascist theocracy. Emerging from this mess is an artist who goes by many names, eventually settling on X. The book-within-the-book is a biography of her as written by her widow, CM Lucca. She travels around the world tracking down clues to the secretive X, eventually finding devastating truths not only about X, but about herself, too.

In X, Lacey has created a compelling, if dangerous, character. An artist,writer, and musician, X is composed of elements of Susan Sontag, Joni Mitchell, Renata Alder and more. In following her muse, X left a trail of broken people and shattered relationships, yet was a cultural trendsetter in multiple fields. She leaps off the page with a mix of arrogance, combativeness and vulnerability. She’s a dangerous tiger of a person.

But where Lacey’s book really shines is the worldbuilding of this funhouse mirror United States. From the brutal repression of the South to the failing utopia of the North, it’s a world that examines the best and worst of the American dream. It’s a world where the North elects Bernie Sanders while the South runs a literal thought police department. One is left wanting to know more about this world.

Still, Biography of X does exactly what one wants from speculative fiction: it weaves a compelling story with deft commentary while avoiding the trappings of more preachy fiction. Her book is a warning: not just about politics, but also about art and abuse. Recommended.