As a child, the novelist Catherine Lacey, 37, adopted different names and later legally changed her last name to her middle name—“My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s maiden name,” as she put it to me when we spoke recently. “I don’t really feel identified with any name and think there’s something nice about that.”
The protagonists of Lacey’s novels evince a similar penchant for protean identities; you could call them consummate escape artists. The narrator of her first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014), wants “a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history,” and travels from New York to New Zealand to wriggle out of a marriage with her husband. In 2017’s The Answers (currently being developed into a TV series for FX with Darren Aronofsky and Danny Strong as executive producers), the main character is compelled to evacuate herself of agency in order to participate in a pseudo-scientific “Girlfriend Experiment.”
Lacey’s newest novel, Biography of X, takes as its titular subject “X,” a cipher of a visual artist and writer who made a career out of scattering herself among several different personas. “X was put together like a Frankenstein’s monster of 20 artists and 20 writers that I admired,” Lacey tells me.
Taking a leaf from W. G. Sebald, the novel is inset with black-and-white photos of different incarnations of X. It is the death of the elusive figure that sets the book in motion. Every death leaves behind a contrail of confusions, but this is conspicuously true in the case of X, who claims to have been “born a thousand times.” The novel concludes with 20 pages of endnotes in which Lacey cites real-life sources of inspiration, including Renata Adler, Kathy Acker, and Susan Sontag.
The book proper was sparked by “an experience many years ago where I felt like I was completely fully in grief and also completely fully in new love,” Lacey, who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and lives in New York and Mexico, tells me. She goes on: “Either one of those states alone can make you feel insane,” and the tension between those states animates much of her work.
Weighing in at 416 pages, Biography of X is the book that she has worked on the longest and is an astonishing achievement. It’s flush with a sense of playfulness that’s compacted into aphorisms such as “A wedding is a way for the living to attend their own funeral” and heavily sprinkled with footnotes—a delightful amalgam of real journalists and critics (Elvia Wilk, Parul Sehgal, Merve Emre, Rachel Aviv) writing about fictional topics. (Much of the book’s pre-publication buzz has swirled around literati “recognizing themselves” in it.)
At the same time, the novel looks at what the costs of artistic ambition might be for an individual like X, whose creativity, Lacey tells me, “is some sort of overlord that she submits herself to.” It’s a predicament at once specific to a near-mythic figure such as X and universal to ordinary situations, like working in an office, interacting with family members, or raising a child. As Lacey says, “There are so many opportunities where we have to submit to something that’s completely beyond our control and is maybe insane.”
Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey, is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Rhoda Feng is a New York–based writer. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Observer, The New Republic, and elsewhere