peteg's blog - noise - books - 2023 07 04 CatherineLacey BiographyOfX

Catherine Lacey: Biography of X. (2023)

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Kindle. Lacey's latest, and a pandemic project it clearly is. As with Elliot Ackerman I feel the returns from her work are well diminished now — her previous efforts Nobody is ever missing, The Answers, Certain American States, and Pew mark out a clear downward trajectory. It took me quite a few goes to get past the first page.

Again like Ackerman, Lacey has a crack at an alterna-history U.S.A. but with counterfactuals that are substantially less essential to what she wants to tell us. This reality was splintered in 1945 into the Southern, Northern and Western territories and reunified at some later date. The S.T. is obviously a theocratic totalitarian capitalist utopia, and I did not find Lacey's descriptions of living under such a regime very persuasive. The N.T. would be recognisable to real-world NYC residents; the City vacuums up the lost and ambitious with the winners inscribing their names on pop culture while the flyover states are flown over.

Our narrator is a Pulitzer-winning journalist who writes about her wife X in high retributive style. X herself is a culture-vulture composite of late 20th century pop artists, being multi-persona'd like David Bowie, doing trashy pop art like Andy Warhol, writing/producing for Tom Waits, drugs, sex shows, yadda. In that way it's a bit of a biography of those people at those times (1970s to mid-1990s) like John Birmingham's Leviathan. (Writing biographies of cities was perhaps a thing to do around 2000. I now see Birmingham pays his bills with alt-history too.) The central problem is that it is derivative of all it supervenes, and the questions it poses are trite; for instance the final movement asks us whether one can desire the approval of the culture while holding that culture in disdain, to which the answer was already provided by David Bowie a long time ago, and Donald Trump more recently.

At times it feels painfully episodic, as if every loose idea has to be housed, and we have to wait until the final chapter before we get Lacey's signature elliptic thought processes/recounting of experience in tragically brief form.

Widely reviewed. Dwight Garner. A smoodgery. The second half drags. A major and audacious novel. Joumana Khatib interviewed Lacey: she was a woman in love once again in love. Joanna Biggs at length. The reviews are about as tedious as the work itself, and all have long lists of ingredients. It's likely the best bits are the pointers in the endnotes — for instance this interview of David Bowie by Kerry O'Brien in 2004.