Biography of X by Catherine Lacey is the most inventive and playful novel of the year. Yes, it is only April, but surely nothing can surpass this. The literary style of our times is realism; everyone wants to try to capture the zeitgeist, the Twitter age, the social climate and, well, the literal climate. Lacey brushes these notions away like crumbs on a cardigan. Biography of X is the story of the deceased artist known as X, as told by her widow. X’s life, however, is as vast a work of fiction as the novel itself. A master of disguise and pseudonyms, X jumped from career to career, country to country, with a host of fake passports, rubber prosthetics, wigs, backstories and lies. As she travelled around she found herself deep in artistic circles. She befriended David Bowie and wrote some of the songs on Low. She maintained a love/hate relationship with Susan Sontag. She inspired Denis Johnson to become a writer. Lacey backs up all these “facts” with excessive footnotes to books, interviews and photographs. All of which are, you guessed it, completely fake.
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Lacey doesn’t stop there, however. The United States the novel takes place in is a country that was divided in two in the middle of the 20th century, the north and the south becoming separate territories. The north excels, becoming a progressive society where sexism, homophobia and racism are eradicated; the south, however, becomes a deeply oppressive state. On the face of it, it wouldn’t feel incorrect to categorise Lacey’s novel as fantasy, or even science fiction, but to try to coerce it into a genre at all feels ultimately futile.
Lacey’s exercise in fiction is a stroke of genius. To create a fictionalised biography is a feat in itself, but to construct one that is so meticulous in its fiction really raises the novel to the next level. Lacey, who has become known for strange and memorable novels such as 2020’s Pew, is at her creative apex with Biography of X. One of the few rules for writing fiction is that it should be all made up; reading Lacey’s novel you really begin to wonder why writers don’t seem to run with this fact more.
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