This Novelist Is Pushing All the Buttons at the Same Time

Catherine Lacey invents the ultimate fun-house novel for her exploration of biography and art.

Portrait made with mirrors
Photograph and video by Mark Lim for The Atlantic


y favorite work by the artist X, An Account of My Abduction, depicts a kidnapping. For part of the 87-minute video, a woman lies taped up on the floor, writhing, while a voice off camera hisses threats at her. The woman on the floor is named Věra. The one off camera is named Yarrow Hall. The video is disturbing for multiple reasons. It captures suffering and vulnerability. It presents brutality as art. And both of the women are actually characters inhabited by X. The abduction is staged, performed, fabricated, whatever word you prefer. But its first viewers didn’t know what they were looking at, or whether it was real or invented. And once they realized it was the latter, they were confused by what felt like deception—a reaction that seems to have been the point.

I’ve never actually seen An Account of My Abduction. No one has, or will. But you can “view” it yourself in Catherine Lacey’s genre-quaking new novel, Biography of X, which invents X, and her assumed identities, and her big, brash, occasionally stunty body of work. X is a creation in the vein of David Bowie and Kathy Acker and Cindy Sherman and Andrea Fraser—a shape-shifter who encourages her fictional selves to metastasize until they kick her out of her own life, an iconoclast with many noms de plume but no answers about her own childhood or upbringing. “It only seems to be a simple question—Where are you from? It can never be sufficiently answered,” she enigmatically tells a magazine interviewer, posing the question that animates every inch of Biography of X.

This is Lacey’s fourth novel, and she has shown a keen streak of inventiveness and ambition that’s been rewarded with much recognition: She’s won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim, and a Whiting. But Biography of X revels in the kind of identity theft that artists (and writers) employ to build the stories of their work and themselves. Lacey fashioned the enigma that is X—a woman known for her “uncommon brutality” and venomous disdain—out of dozens of artists and provocateurs and hucksters who inhabit our world, but she also made her something inimitable, a vehicle for exploring Lacey’s favorite theme: the fungibility of identity. “I think because I’m an artist,” X says, “my image will always come before me.” In creating this character made up of characters, Lacey has posed an unanswerable question about whether an artist can bury herself so far under work that it becomes impossible to find the traces of an authentic self.

By Catherine Lacey

Sitting at a downtown-Manhattan restaurant on a warm, gusty winter afternoon, Lacey came across as more contemplative and unencumbered than enfant terrible—she was wearing a fluffy, forest-green coat and looked at me through wide blue eyes; large paper-clip tattoos on each wrist appeared to secure her hands to her body. She looked slightly perplexed when I came at her with sharp-angled questions, like I was trying to pry open a shell for a pearl already strung on a necklace.

X hides herself so well that her own wife doesn’t even know her birthplace. But the Catherine Lacey who wrote Biography of X and produced its brilliant, vicious, capricious protagonist—an unstable new element in the periodic table of literature—doesn’t believe in a unified theory of the self, so she was happy to hand me remnants of her own life and let me create some Cubist version of her. Under a photo of us that she posted to Instagram right after we met, she wrote that she still has “no idea how to properly organize past selves,” an idea she explained to me that day: You contain multiple people, from different periods of your life, and you lose some of them along the way. “There’s a part of me that feels really troubled by [that] separation of identities,” she noted. “I don’t know; isn’t it troubling?” It seems to me that it is: The lifelong project of making a self is, by nature, hopeless. Turning Lacey into one firmly outlined person seems against the spirit of her project.

A few facts anyway: Lacey is 37. She was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, but hasn’t lived in the state since she left for boarding school at age 14. She pinballs around: Right now she’s living in the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, swapping houses with a friend for the place she shares in Mexico City. “I don’t have a region,” she told me. “I’m not of any one place.” She’s been married (to a performance artist) and partnered and un-partnered and re-partnered again. In the past nine years, she’s emerged as the rare young writer who has successfully produced a true oeuvre: Her novels vary thematically—they include a hypnotic road-trip tale (Nobody Is Ever Missing, 2014), a speculative pseudo-satire of dating and mating (The Answers, 2017), and a Shirley Jackson–esque race-and-gender fable (Pew, 2020)—but they all share Lacey’s particular ability to build sturdy narratives that point to the flimsiness of narrative itself.

Lacey is an open book but a profiler’s riddle, even though that’s the kind of writing she once hoped to produce: “I wanted to be doing what you’re doing,” she said, with a look of wonder—she wanted to write nonfiction and coerce artists into sharing their lives. Biography of X, a true magnum opus, plants real lives—like Bowie’s and Acker’s, along with figures as varied as Connie Converse, Frank O’Hara, Richard Serra, and Susan Sontag—alongside the fictional, Spirographing the two together. It’s almost a form of profile writing, but she’s suitably busted up the whole thing to retrofit those “real” lives to her protagonist’s purposes.

Biography of X serves as the title of two books, actually: Lacey’s novel and the biography “inside” that novel (“published” by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2005), written by CM Lucca, a lapsed journalist. She is also X’s widow—the story is told in retrospect by a grieving spouse using biography to make sense of the unknowable person she loved. CM (alternately Charlotte Marie or Cynthia Malone, depending) obsessively roots through paperwork and gallery slides, interviews old friends and enemies, tries to fill in the broad gaps in the personal history of a woman who appeared seemingly out of nowhere in New York in 1972 and ended up with a retrospective at MoMA two decades later. X was the kind of artist who provoked conversation whenever she exhibited new work—less a lightning rod than the lightning itself. She had several personas: Clyde Hill, a cult novelist with New Directions; Martina Riggio, a feminist small-press founder; the aforementioned Yarrow Hall and Věra, who each put out work of their own.

Lacey’s power as a mimic is on full display here: Her creations are all as believable as X is, even when we know they are Cindy Sherman–like roles, pulled on as a kind of winking game. Longing rises up from every crack. X, CM explains, “lived in a play without intermission in which she cast herself in every role.” But who was she? CM can gather all sorts of information on her wife—through Vanity Fair profiles, towers of notebooks in her study, critics’ takedowns. But she yearns to identify the precipitating event that turned her into X: a name that signifies no name, a woman who claimed, “It’s not that I am a private person; I am not a person at all.” CM wants to know where X came from in order to make sense of her.

Lacey is happy to disclose bits from her own past. As we scanned our menus, she told me that she’s been a vegetarian ever since she read Leviticus during her church-intensive childhood and decided that no matter what her mother said, she’d likely spend eternity in the furnaces of hell if she mixed milk and meat. Her attachment to her Christianity was fierce and then suddenly gone: “I had a total certitude about why the world was put together, the way that it was put together, what happens after you die. It made all these answers completely clear.” She left her faith and Mississippi around the same time, and wound up with a hole that those identities used to occupy.

Her answerless fiction is a new way of working through those big questions; it’s also gorgeously anti-solution—those “viewers” who witness An Account of My Abduction have been conned by the art world into believing that revelation is the end point of any narrative. “I’m constructing this whole fictional thing because it feels like the only way to clearly convey something that I’m feeling,” Lacey noted with a head shake and some laughing exasperation, “which is ridiculous.”

As if its main conceit isn’t distorting enough, Biography of X also steps through a side door to present a bizarro alternate version of American history. Just months after X’s birth, in 1945, the novel’s America split into three big chunks: the libertarian Western Territory, the socialist Northern Territory, and the theocratic Southern Territory, which covertly built a wall and locked itself in. The latter didn’t reunite with the rest of the country until weeks after X’s death, in 1996—“as if her very existence were tethered to that dangerous, doomed boundary.” This lets Lacey imagine a South that could physically trap X as a child, and hint that X might be so powerful as to bend the world, once out of her control, to her whim.

Lacey’s characters usually don’t escape the South intact. (“I felt wrong there,” Lacey offered—an idea she repeated to me over and over.) In The Answers, a girl is entirely isolated on a farm in Tennessee with her radical-Christian father and simpering mother, fed Bible verses and kept blind to pop culture, that American golden calf. She wanders adulthood in search of experiences that might make her a full person. Pew revolves around someone with no discernible age, gender, or race, no background or history—found in a church in a small, unnamed southern town, where citizens fight to decide whether the vulnerable stranger should be sheltered, as Jesus commands, or rejected. Pew ends up “alone” and “gone” and entirely unaccounted for. In Lacey’s South, the region’s external pressure to conform produces irreparably cracked identities.

Early on, CM learns that X was one of a very small number of people who escaped the Southern Territory, where, as along the Berlin Wall, armed guards shot down anyone caught crossing. X’s birth identity, it turns out, was Carrie Lu Walker of Byhalia, Mississippi (75 miles from Lacey’s Tupelo); her childhood of purged libraries, global isolation, church-house education, and female submission radicalized her into rebellion and then escape. X’s manifestos embrace the notion that “art is an expression of the society from which it emerges.” And the revelations about X’s childhood give CM the feeling that she is making progress toward understanding her wife’s work, now “more folded with meaning and complication.” For X, a refugee from religious tyranny, the act of self-creation was about addition, not subtraction.

This alternate America is a distorted version of our own, ratcheted up just enough that it reads like a dream state. The result is pleasantly disorienting; it gives the feeling that history is operated by a series of levers, and that fiction can yank on some of them to spit out varied, unruly results. If art kick-starts a “total, ongoing delusion,” as X writes, then Lacey understands that setting her work inside a prototype of a slightly different world—with the socialist Emma Goldman as an architect of the American economy, with Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock and Alexander Calder killed off so that “women were seen as the sex to whom ‘art’ belonged,” with reparations paid for the descendants of the enslaved—keeps the ground just unsteady enough that certainty floats away.

Janet Malcolm has called biography “the arrogant desire to impose a narrative on the stray bits and pieces of a life.” Biography of X came from an experiment designed to amplify that notion by turning it on its head: Use a novel to create a fake biography, then splice in enough of those “bits and pieces of a life” to make it seem real even as Lacey never loses sight of the artifice of it all.

Readers might feel the impulse to parse CM’s reporting for some base truth, but they’d be missing the point. Practically speaking—and Lacey is a devotee of practicality, meticulously explaining to me how each decision in the novel resulted from a set of what she called “enticing boundaries” she’d set for herself—the book is a highly stylized crossbreed of genres. A set of footnotes cites imaginary magazine articles, interviews, and profiles about X by real-life writers such as Joshua Rivkin, Naomi Fry, Hermione Hoby, and Renata Adler. Some of them swirl our reality with the book’s—Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker, her biography of the punk writer, is cited, but with a publication date 15 years early; there’s a magazine (perhaps a cousin of this one) called The Atlantic Coast; the artist Alex Prager films a documentary about a seditious librarian in the Southern Territory. The second set of annotations are Lacey’s 13 pages of endnotes. They cite the parts of our world that she’s collaged into hers: a Tom Waits speech that X recites verbatim; a character’s murder that’s modeled on the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother; a quote from Lacey’s own first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, that she attributes to another one of X’s personas, called Angel Thornbird.

The writer David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger employed written collage to illustrate the power of creative borrowing, counseled Lacey to leave those annotations out and let the audience wonder. “But I’m not really trying to get away with something,” she said, while we ordered tea after lunch. It’s vital to her that readers see the wires she crossed and the easy co-opting of one reality for another. What better material to screw with than what people already believe to be indubitable? For Lacey, fiction—and biography—aren’t precious little feats to be preserved in formaldehyde. “The more you buy into the idea that you are somehow the entity that’s really responsible for your work, the unhappier you are,” she said. She wishes her own name weren’t on her novels, and claims she isn’t the authority on them. The self can’t be siphoned off from the work, but it needn’t be the work. “X believed that making fiction was sacred,” CM writes, “and she wanted to live in that sanctity, not to be fooled by the flimsiness of perceived reality, which was nothing more than a story that had fooled most of the world.” Biography of X moves past autofiction: The reality of a personal history is no more reliable than the uncertainty of fiction.

By sheer luck, the artist Alex Prager, known for her staged, cinematic photos, and now grafted into Lacey’s book, had a new multimedia show that had just opened, and Lacey and I took the C train up to Chelsea to catch it. Part Two: Run! was set in one of Prager’s signature simulacrums: a movie set so luminous and sharp-cornered that it was obviously constructed for the camera. In a short film, four aggressively wigged and costumed actors—to me, all Xs in their invented selves—pushed a giant pinball down the set’s street; it mowed down everyone in its path, but they were miraculously resurrected, standing back up, brushing themselves off. There was a pinball machine too, so observers could implicate themselves: Neither of us was any good. And in the corner, there was a sculptural installation in which a life-size “body,” in a demure gingham dress and sensible heels, lay crushed under the movie’s mammoth mirrored ball. Where the head ought to have been was the ball, and the reflection created a continuation of the body, another body, another self.

While we watched the film, Lacey wondered out loud how the camera wasn’t captured in the ball’s reflection—an artist concerned with the technicality of craft. Standing in front of the orb, we could easily see ourselves, made small but still present, us and another version of us. For a moment, I could imagine that Lacey’s reflection would simply walk away without her.

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