Sincerely Paranoid: On Catherine Lacey’s “Biography of X”

Jenny Wu reviews Catherine Lacey’s “Biography of X.”

By Jenny WuMarch 27, 2023

Sincerely Paranoid: On Catherine Lacey’s “Biography of X”

Biography of X by Catherine Lacey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages.

IN FEBRUARY 2023, House Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted, “We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this.” While talk of secession is nothing new, the solution the Georgia Republican called for sounded eerily similar to the alternate-historical United States explored in Catherine Lacey’s parafictional novel Biography of X (2023). In Lacey’s novel, the southern states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee secede on Thanksgiving 1945. The day comes to be known as the Great Disunion, according to the novel’s narrator, a journalist named C. M. Lucca. The withdrawn states found a fascist theocracy known as the Southern Territory—ST for short—complete with a wall and a “South First” way of life. From this territory comes a woman of many names; the one by which we know her is X. Until her untimely death on November 11, 1996, she lives in New York City as a bartender, songwriter, installation and performance artist, and book publisher, a suspiciously prolific and charismatic art-world legend who casts a spell over a host of drifters, eccentrics, and romantics, while keeping her place of birth a secret.

C. M. Lucca is X’s third wife, then her widow, and then her self-appointed biographer. Their marriage is, as Lucca recalls, neither happy nor reasonable, though her narration is still steeped in the mythology of X. Sentence by sentence, one senses the extent to which the biographer is, despite the clarity that comes with time, still attempting to make excuses for the bad behavior of her subject. X is prone to flashes of violence and self-destruction. She sends mixed signals and often exaggerates, claiming, for instance, to have ridden across the Williamsburg Bridge on the roof of the L train. While filling out their marriage application, Lucca notices X listing a never-before-mentioned ex-wife beneath her first wife’s name. Lucca asks no questions and goes on imagining herself “as the second [wife].” This gesture of denial sums up their relationship dynamic: X uses information as a weapon—withholding and doling it out when advantageous to her everyday life, which is devoted to her art. Lucca later buries herself in her late wife’s archive and launches a one-woman investigation in order to cope with the loss, yet finds herself unable to wield the facts, figures, and tall tales with the ruthless confidence that X displayed.

There are a number of ways to read the story of this relationship. The first is, to borrow a term from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a “paranoid reading”: through her travels and interviews, Lucca finds out that X had been part of a group of Southern youths who came across a collection of banned books and organized to detonate a gun factory in the ST, subsequently fleeing and adopting new identities in other parts of the country—in other words, she realizes that her wife had lied by omission and their marriage, by virtue of X’s deception, was a manifestation of oppression. This version of the story also paints a picture of a passive citizenry under an authoritarian regime, who enact violence and cruelty when it brings them comfort, disowning and even stoning family members who stray from doctrine. In this version of the story, X’s art—which necessarily involves disappearance acts, exaggerated alter egos, and a clean break from her past in the ST—comes at the expense of her marriage to Lucca, and two unattainable ideals, love and art, turn mutually destructive.

Another way to read Biography of X is to treat the novel as a commentary on art criticism. The narrative is concerned not only with questions of power and ethics but also with how we look at art and how life outside an artwork takes hold of its meaning, well beyond the artist’s or art world’s control. After tracking down X’s relatives in Byhalia, Mississippi, Lucca reevaluates her wife’s so-called “apolitical” installations and performances and discovers new ways of reading them. X’s geographical origin lingers in her artwork; Lucca sees, for example, X’s interactive installation The Pain Room (1979–80)—whose title calls to mind such works as Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms (1965– ) and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Room (2006)—in a new light after visiting the ST. The infamous premise of The Pain Room is this: viewers are locked alone in a small room where they are shown a six-minute montage of violent scenes. If they flinch, they receive an electric shock. If they make it through the film, they are delivered, via trapdoor and slide, to a Bacchanal party replete with dancers, drugs, and alcohol. After Lucca returns from the South, she meets with X’s gallerist, Ginny Green, and thinks, “I knew [the subject of The Pain Room] even more deeply than Ginny could have […] as its meaning had been transformed by the revelation of X’s birthplace and escape.” Without the context of X’s background, one might think that the work illustrates how the failure to grasp artistic intent is somehow worse than physical pain (viewers who cannot endure the film must leave the screening room, missing the party downstairs). But to imagine the artist’s childhood spent steeped in Christianity, one might detect in the work the promise of eternal reward, a justification for any suffering experienced on the part of the viewer.

In the 1980s, X staged Dinner, a series of guerrilla performances for which she dressed as a waiter and served rat carcasses to unsuspecting patrons at five-star restaurants in Manhattan. What collectors at the time considered a tasteless joke might read differently, Lucca suspects, if one considers the ST’s 1975 famine, which surely would have impacted X when she heard about it in the North. After viewing Dinner with fresh eyes and fresh biographical knowledge, Lucca thinks, “I had never fully understood why my wife’s art had earned her as much recognition and money as it had, but seeing it in the light of her escape from the Southern Territory, each piece seemed more interesting, more folded with meaning and complication.” X’s cool detachment, bolstered by her reputation as an unknowable, untraceable art star, is punctured by her widow's tireless investigations. Indeed, Lucca’s morbid curiosity manages at times to cut through the miasma of paranoia that seems to permeate relationships in the novel’s alternate America, revealing glimmers of causality and sincerity.

Brimming with negative capability, intrigue, and erudition, Biography of X is at once a tense, tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale for the United States and a robustly supported argument for the idea that biographical knowledge alters the reading of an artwork. At the intersection of both of these vectors sits the figure of the verbally dexterous artist who, for better or worse, says what most dare not say. In a conversation between X and curator Robert Storr, which borrows lines from a real interview that Storr conducted with the dancer Yvonne Rainer, X’s dialogue deviates from the source material at a precise and poignant moment that encapsulates the nature of her charisma: in the original interview, published by The Paris Review in 2017, Storr suggests that Rainer has a “split personality” and a “narcissistic dream of perfection,” to which the dancer replies, “Yeah, it’s called ambivalence.” Storr presses, asking whether Rainer had structured Film About a Woman Who … (1974) “organically” or according to “psychological or psychoanalytical models.” Rainer reflects that “[i]t came out of my own development and therapy. A lot of it came out of psychotherapy, just learning about myself.” Here, instead of turning inward and divulging as Rainer does, X deflects, telling Storr, “It came out of my own development. […] Are you familiar with photography, the process of photography? […] You put the photo paper in the developer and what happens?” “The photograph develops,” says Storr. “Good boy, Frank,”—X has been calling him by the wrong name throughout the interview—“good boy. The photo develops. And this is what life is, little Waldo Emerson, little Charlie, darling. You put people in situations and their personality develops. Their little freaky heads.”

Despite her aplomb, X’s development is a much more nuanced matter. Although in New York X has presented herself as an enchanter with few emotional attachments, Lucca begins to see that X “must have loved the South for a time, loved it in her own harsh way,” to want to burn it down and never return. Reading Biography of X sharpens one’s skepticism and criticality in the face of individuals and institutions that bend the truth in accordance with their worldviews. Lacey demonstrates how easy it is to doctor information by peppering the novel with parafictional citations. A seemingly innocuous quotation from page 17 of Nathalie Legér’s The White Dress, which came out in 2020 through Dorothy, a publishing project—“Who knows if it was in order better to conceal her self or to expose her self”—is cited as follows: “Nathalie Legér, ‘The Right Mess,’ Dorothy Magazine 25, January 1995: 42.” Elsewhere, Rachel Cusk is referred to as Richard Cusk. This clever substitution of fact with fiction, so subtle the eye could glide over it, mirrors the deception to which X subjects her wife throughout the course of their marriage. With this textual sleight of hand, Lacey curates a reading experience that is active and self-aware, proof that, despite the rampant disinformation and short supply of negative capability that characterize our contemporary moment, readers have the ability to discern fact from fiction—and we’d better start doing so now.


Jenny Wu reviews art and books, writes fiction, and occasionally curates. Her work can be found in Astra, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, and other venues.

LARB Contributor

Jenny Wu is a writer and educator based in New York City. Her work can be found in Art in America, Artforum, e-flux, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She holds a master’s degree in art history, as well as an MFA in fiction, from Washington University in St. Louis.


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