Friday, June 16, 2023

Catherine Lacey's Biography of X

X is a downtown New York artist (performance, fiction, painting, music, critic--she's amazing; she does it all!) from the 1970s until her death in 1996 when she's only in her early 50s. There's a biography that her widow did not cooperate with and does not like which comes out after X's death; the widow decides to correct the record, and produces her own Biography of X.

And yes, I did say, her widow. We quite rapidly realize we're in an alternative American history, one in which gay marriage was legal already soon after WWII. At least in the northern states; the South has taken advantage of the dislocation of the war to secede and form a theocratic dictatorship. They surround themselves with a wall (like the Berlin Wall) and attempt to keep their own people in, and keep others out. Eventually this fails and by the time of the main events of the novel, the North and the South are reunited, with a Reconstruction-like program going on in the South. 

X had various aliases in her past and previous affairs and marriages, before she settles on X as her alias and C. M. Lucca (the widow and our author, ostensibly). Lucca's attempt to figure out who her wife slept with before they were married is as ill-advised as it sounds--the only case I think of that working out is Scott Pilgrim--but that doesn't mean it's unrealistic or a poor premise for a novel. The novel's getting a lot of buzz and I had hopes.

But I don't think it really worked. Three problems for me: first, the alternative history. I'm OK with that in principal, but Lacey spent too much time building it up. The obvious comparison here is The Handmaid's Tale, and Atwood handles it much better. Atwood spends almost no time on how her theocracy comes to power; Lacey would have been wise to do the same. If you lay out a series of nits, somebody's going to feel the need to pick them. (Could the South have succeeded in a rebellion just because US armies were in Europe? The Irish Easter Rising failed in 1916. Etc., ) She should have just postulated her world.

Second, related. She uses a lot of actual historical figures, but changes their role in history. Emma Goldman is governor of Illinois and in FDR's cabinet. Kathy Boudin blows up buildings in the South, not in the North, Frank O'Hara is run over by a jeep on Fire Island, but survives; Brianna (!) Eno. This is sometimes funny and I think it's meant to be. But it's overdone, especially when she gets to NYC types I had to look up to figure out what the joke was, it began to feel more showoff-y than funny, amusing perhaps to Lacey's artist friends. (Some actual people get their history altered and become major characters, folk singer Connie Converse in particular. That's a bit different.)

All of that would have been OK, though, if I'd cared more about the central figure. X is obviously meant to be a woman of mystery, a real shapeshifter. But there's too many shapes.  She's given a fairly horrific childhood background, but the line between that and her adult life didn't feel worked out through all those shapes. Her genius is demonstrated by what people think of her, of her art, of her books, of her paintings. In a novel about an artist, that's kind of the way it has to go. And because Lacey has allowed herself to use real people, when she wants to demonstrate X's bonafides as a music producer, she can have Tom Waits and David Bowie testify to it, who know something about the subject. But mostly her genius doesn't entirely convince. Here's an example. X is at an art gallery with a famous gallerist, Ginny Green:
"She said--'He didn't put anything in the paintings because he doesn't know how. He doesn't know anything about art, and worse, he doesn't care.' Now, of course I was accustomed to criticism--I even welcomed it on occasion--but no one's opinion ever made me as doubtful as hers." [p.240]
Now, I don't know, your mileage may vary, but that brief, rather platitudinous, ad-hominem attack wouldn't convince me about an artist, and should convince Ginny Green even less, since the artist was someone Green had already selected for exhibition. A lot of X's pronouncements came across like that. We're told they convinced other people. They didn't convince me, in and of themselves. X is meant to be a bit monstrous, and that's OK in a novel; people are fascinated by monsters; but she is meant to be fascinating, the novel kind of depends upon it, and I didn't entirely find her so.

Anyway, it's buzzy, it reads pretty quick, but I was hoping for more.

I've read a few books so far this month, but this is the first one actually from my Books of Summer list!


  1. Replies
    1. I know! That is the beauty of classics--if everybody's thought they were good for a hundred years, they probably are...

  2. Sorry this one wasn't as good as you hoped it would be. I probably would have DNFed it because it's not really the kind of book I love to read.

    1. It was a premise that could have worked for me, but oh well!