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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

Biography of X


Publisher: RB Media Recorded Books

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication Date: 03/21/2023

Format: Audiobook

My Rating: 5 Stars 🎧



From one of our fiercest stylists, a roaring epic chronicling the life, times, and secrets of a notorious artist.


When X―an iconoclastic artist, writer, and polarizing shape-shifter―falls dead in her office, her widow, wild with grief and refusing everyone’s good advice, hurls herself into writing a biography of the woman she deified. Though X was recognized as a crucial creative force of her era, she kept a tight grip on her life story. Not even CM, her wife, knew where X had been born, and in her quest to find out, she opens a Pandora’s box of secrets, betrayals, and destruction. All the while, she immerses herself in the history of the Southern Territory, a fascist theocracy that split from the rest of the country after World War II, as it is finally, in the present day, forced into an uneasy reunification.


A masterfully constructed literary adventure complete with original images assembled by X’s widow, Biography of X follows a grieving wife seeking to understand the woman who enthralled her. CM traces X’s peripatetic trajectory over decades, from Europe to the ruins of America's divided territories, and through her collaborations and feuds with everyone from Bowie and Waits to Sontag and Acker. And when she finally understands the scope of X’s defining artistic project, CM realizes her wife’s deceptions were far crueler than she imagined.


Pulsing with suspense and intellect while blending nonfiction and fiction, Biography of X is a roaring epic that plumbs the depths of grief, art, and love. In her most ambitious novel yet, Catherine Lacey, one of our most acclaimed literary innovators, pushes her craft to its highest level, introducing us to an unforgettable character who, in her tantalizing mystery, shows us the fallibility of the stories we craft for ourselves.







My Review


Catherine Lacey's latest, BIOGRAPHY OF X, is her fifth novel—set in an alternate late 20th century—dark and moody, an alluring and intriguing book within a book—crossing between fact and fiction, a fascinating literary adventure by X's widow.



AUDIOBOOK: Spellbinding! Firstly, you must listen to the audiobook! I am a massive fan of the narrator, Cassandra Campbell, and she was the perfect voice offering an award-winning performance and an engaging listening experience. Now I need to buy the hardcover.



When X—an eccentric prominent, elusive artist and writer with a mysterious past who wore many names and faces, falls dead in her office, her widow, C.M. Lucca is devastated and overwhelmed with grief. The widow sets out to uncover the truth about her late wife.


CM had given up her life and career, making X the center of her universe, leaving her husband for X, and later marrying. X and CM have lived together in New York throughout their marriage, first in the city and then upstate.


After X's death in 1996, C.M. Lucca (wife and biographer) sets out to write a biography of X's life. She soon realizes she does not know the many mysteries of her wife. CM is also a Pulitzer prize–winning crime reporter and digs into the past of the woman who both fascinated and terrified her.


She begins in the small Mississippi town where X was born, which X kept a secret to protect her from agents of the Southern Territory. As Lucca conducts interviews over the next several years, she begins to doubt how well she knew X.


CM's first discovery is that X is a rare refugee from the South, having escaped during an attempted terrorist attack.


Chapter by chapter, Lucca peels back the mystery of X’s multi-jobs and manically productive identities, including Bee Converse (musician), Clyde Hill (author), Martina Riggio (feminist publisher), Cassandra Edwards (author published by Riggio), and Yarrow Hall (filmmaker), among others.


CM learns she was her third wife, and X was not always a kind person. She was selfish, manipulative, cruel, deceptive, narcissistic, violent, and abusive. Who was this woman she fell in love with? Did she push away all the bad things?


Though X was recognized as a vital creative force of her era, she kept a tight grip on her life story. Not even CM, her wife, knew where X had been born, and in her quest to find out, she opened Pandora's box of secrets, betrayals, and destruction.


As the chapters recount Lucca's interviews with the people whom X, under different guises, knew, loved, and exploited through the decades, it also describes an alternate version of American history.


From the history of the Southern Territory, a fascist theocracy that split from the rest of the country after World War II, an alternate history in which the southern U.S. pulled off a surprise secession in 1945.


Through the writing, she tries to make sense of her life, X, and her mysterious life and journey. However, what prompted her to write the biography was a man named Theodore Smith, who published an authorized biography of X, and she thought it was bad and set out to write her own.


C.M. is shocked to learn X was born in the Southern Territory, the portion of the U.S. that splintered off after a far-right Christian overthrow. Until the Reunification in 1996, it was almost impossible for any Southern citizen to escape to the Northern or Western Territories, and the few who did were tracked down to be brought back or killed. X was an exception.


These questions are only compounded when CM meets X's former husband and, after that, speaks to her son. CM keeps searching, peeling back layer after layer of her wife's life, her first years in the Western and then Northern Territories, her past loves, her many aliases, jobs, and disguises, much of which will inform and become her later art.


While they were married, CM knew X would leave without telling her where she was going for blocks of time with no explanation. She walked on eggshells. However, she had no clue about her wife's past. She slowly unravels X's life and all her mysteries. The more she learns, the more Lucca is deeply unsettled about what she meant to her wife.

I found it interesting in the NYT article where Lacey (author) decided soon after starting this project, "she would have to rewrite American history just to create a stage on which two women can have a relationship that doesn't have to be justified."

Her novel envisions an alternate U.S. — one in which the country broke apart and the vast majority of the South seceded in 1945, establishing a patriarchal theocracy that lasted for decades. In this history, the political activist Emma Goldman became the governor of Illinois and eventually F.D.R.'s chief of staff, pushing for the New Deal to include protections for same-sex marriage and immigration rights.


In addition, there are re-imaginings of countercultural scenes from the '70s and '80s from pop culture, artists, musicians, art, politics, literature, and beyond. The author seamlessly alters and repurposes the work and words of countless artists and writers, making this a fun adventure.


So who was X?


The novel is kind of like social media and the Instagram world. People are intrigued by the outward fake person but not fully interested in knowing the real person. Only what they are perceived to be.


Genre-bending, character-driven and smartly written, a cross between literary fiction and psychological thriller—Biography of X is about C.M. as much as it is about X. A thought-provoking novel with dark themes about what we give up when we love someone.

Here CM was giving up a part of herself. She had to grieve for her wife's loss and stories she told herself about a woman she did not know. Ultimately grieving for the time she gave up while questioning her own life.


How many of us are unknowable—even and especially to ourselves?


Thank you to #RBMedia #RecordedBooks #NetGalley for a gifted ALC in exchange for an honest review.



@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks

My Rating: 5 💖 Stars

Pub Date: March 21, 2023






Praise

Named a Best Book of March by Apple Books and Amazon, and a Most Anticipated Book by The New York Times, Esquire, The Guardian, TIME, Electric Literature, Lit Hub and Chicago Review of Books


"Breathtaking in its scope and rigor, this unforgettable novel pushes contemporary fiction to dizzying heights. A triumph."

―Kirkus Reviews, starred review


"An audacious novel of art and ideas . . . The author also perfectly marries her [character's] history with her study of a shape-shifting artist, with X refashioning herself both to escape her ultraconservative homeland and to build a vehicle for her creative expression. This is brilliant."

―Publishers Weekly, starred review


"A tour-de-force in literary and artistic realms, this engrossing story of breakaway artist X will challenge readers on many levels."

―Library Journal, starred review


"Lacey's tale is a lovely meditation on not only the mysteries of grief and love but also the equally mysterious ways of the creative process."

―Booklist


"[A] staggering achievement . . . [a] masterpiece about the slippery nature of art, identity, and truth."

―Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire


"Biography of X is criminally good, building on [Lacey's] previous five books’ fascination with the mutability of self with kaleidoscopic depth and astonishing propulsion . . . What is most spectacular is Lacey’s sleight of hand, inviting us to become engrossed in the unknowability of others, while gently reminding us that we, too, are unknowable―even and especially to ourselves."

―Ayden LeRoux, BOMB


"I'm not sure I know another novel that manages to be so many books at once: a biography revealing masks beneath masks and faces beneath faces, a quest narrative unsure of what it's seeking, an impossibly ambitious parable about art and the enigma of others, an alternate history of America that serves as an X-ray of our own fractured country. Biography of X is a profound novel about love and what it can license, about the toll―and maybe the con―of genius. Only Catherine Lacey could have written it."

―Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness and What Belongs to You


"Biography of X is the most ambitious book I’ve ever read from a writer of my own generation. Epic world-building revealed through intimate emotion and dangerously honed sentences; a story that mixes fact and fiction to create a new register of truth, a register that belongs entirely to Catherine Lacey. I'm awed."

―Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby


"Biography of X is a triumphant high-wire act: all the breadth of a 19th century classic with the propulsiveness of a psychological thriller. I stayed up too late, wishing to uncover X's secrets alongside the narrator."

―Sara Nović, author of True Biz


"Lacey imposes a truly outstanding narrative authority on her pseudo-biography . . . the audacity of this book, joined with its vivid re-imaginings of countercultural scenes from the ’70s and ’80s and its glancing intersection with current-day debates about art and politics, seems likely to bring her to a much wider audience. If this does mark Ms. Lacey’s deserved elevation to mainstream attention, she has accomplished it without diluting the vital qualities of confusion, yearning and mystery."

―Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal


"[A] staggering achievement . . . [a] masterpiece about the slippery nature of art, identity, and truth."

―Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire


"Lacey has done such a brilliant job of making X impossible to envision, impossible to feel or grasp . . . There is an ambition in The Biography of X that’s thrilling not least because it shows how endless, how elastic and expansive―at a time when so much storytelling feels constricted, tight and close on a single consciousness―fiction can be."

―Lynn Steger Strong, The New Republic


"Lacey is brilliant. As in her earlier fiction, she is thinking deeply about what we give up to other people when we love them . . . in Biography of X, she has reached a new level of understanding." ―Emma Alpern, Vulture


"Biography of X is criminally good, building on [Lacey's] previous five books’ fascination with the mutability of self with kaleidoscopic depth and astonishing propulsion . . . What is most spectacular is Lacey’s sleight of hand, inviting us to become engrossed in the unknowability of others, while gently reminding us that we, too, are unknowable―even and especially to ourselves."

―Ayden LeRoux, BOMB


"One of the most inventive works I’ve read in a long time, Catherine Lacey’s latest novel is a must-read for fans of ambitious, genre-bending literary fiction."

―David Vogel, Buzzfeed


"Sly, brilliant, philosophically acute, bitingly funny, and a pure joy to spend hours with . . . Suffice it to say that it feels fairly rare for a novel to be hugely intelligent and moving and fun in equal measure, but with Biography of X, Catherine Lacey somehow―magically―makes the nearly impossible look easy." ―Lauren Groff, author of Matrix


"I'm not sure I know another novel that manages to be so many books at once: a biography revealing masks beneath masks and faces beneath faces, a quest narrative unsure of what it's seeking, an impossibly ambitious parable about art and the enigma of others, an alternate history of America that serves as an X-ray of our own fractured country. Biography of X is a profound novel about love and what it can license, about the toll―and maybe the con―of genius. Only Catherine Lacey could have written it."

―Garth Greenwell, author of Cleanness and What Belongs to You


"Biography of X is the most ambitious book I’ve ever read from a writer of my own generation. Epic world-building revealed through intimate emotion and dangerously honed sentences; a story that mixes fact and fiction to create a new register of truth, a register that belongs entirely to Catherine Lacey. I'm awed."

―Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby


"Biography of X is a triumphant high-wire act: all the breadth of a 19th century classic with the propulsiveness of a psychological thriller. I stayed up too late, wishing to uncover X's secrets alongside the narrator." ―Sara Nović, author of True Biz


An Amazon Best Book of March 2023: A widow in the process of penning a biography of her late wife, who was an (in)famous and enigmatic artist, discovers that she's writing a mystery instead, or at least, about a mystery. Turns out she didn't know "X" as well as she thought she did, complicating her grief, as well as the love she feels for someone who spun so many fictions about herself, it’s impossible to know what was real. The reasons behind X’s subterfuge add to the intrigue of this intrepid novel—a treatise on passion, art, and identity that reminded me of the works of Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson. And while some writers’ attempts at “experimental fiction” can be bloodless, Lacy does an expert job of eschewing convention and playing with the form to powerful (and often amusingly cheeky) effect. Once again she has proven what great fiction can do when you’re bold enough, and talented enough, to push its boundaries. —Erin Kodicek, Amazon Editor








About the Author


Photo Credit: Willy Somma.

Catherine Lacey is the author of four books: Nobody Is Ever Missing, The Answers, Certain American States, and Pew.


Her honors include the 2021 NYPL's Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, inclusion on Granta's list of Best Young American Novelists, residencies at the Omi International Arts Center, a fellowship from NYFA, and being a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize.​


Her fifth book, Biography of X, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March 2023. She lives in New York and Mexico. ​WEBSITE





Catherine Lacey is the author of the novels Nobody Is Ever Missing, The Answers, and Pew, and the short story collection Certain American States. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, and a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. She has been a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Believer, and elsewhere.





About the Narrator


Cassandra Campbell, who has hundreds of audiobook credits to her name, delivers each one with refreshing clarity and honesty.


Cassandra Campbell is a prolific audiobook narrator with more than 700 titles to date. Winner of four Audie Awards and nominated for a dozen more, she was a 2018 inductee in Audible’s inaugural Narrator Hall of Fame. She has consistently been an AudioFile Magazine Best Narrator as well as a Publisher’s Weekly Best Narrator of the Year. As an acting teacher, she spent five years as a faculty member of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and has performed in and directed dozens of plays at theaters across the country. READ MORE


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