She Never Existed. Catherine Lacey Wrote Her Biography Anyway.

Tom Waits went to her wedding. David Bowie recorded her work — music so significant it was credited with helping to erode support for the Berlin Wall — but eventually found her odious. Like any interdisciplinary provocateur in the 1980s, she was an “occasional friend and occasional enemy” of Susan Sontag.

And, crucially, she never existed.

This controversial, identity-eschewing artist is the subject of Catherine Lacey’s new novel, “Biography of X,” a sneaky book that purports to be a work of investigative nonfiction written by X’s widow, C.M..

The story opens after X’s death in 1996, when C.M., incensed by an unauthorized book about her wife, sets out to write a corrective. A reporter by trade, she digs into X’s archives and legacy, compelled to understand the woman who had fascinated and terrified her. C.M. knew X was willing to trample on others in service of her art, but was not prepared for the extent of X’s deception and violence, leaving her to reconcile her love for an evasive monster.

Lacey once harbored the idea of being a journalist — she received an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction at Columbia — though over her career has found herself turning to fiction when she gets stuck. “Biography of X” began when Lacey tried to write a real biography. When that project stalled, she swerved back to familiar ground: fiction.

Lacey realized that many of the biographies that interested her were written by someone who was compromised in some way. In setting out to write her book, she explored the idea: Who would be the worst possible person to write a biography? Her answer was C.M., a widow torn apart by grief over the loss of a partner she revered.

A few things about the novel clicked right away: Lacey wasn’t interested in writing about a world where the internet or even cellphones existed. She didn’t want to grapple with the power dynamics inherent to a heterosexual couple. And she knew the subject had to be dead.

The world she wanted to write about — one without the technologies that permeate contemporary society, but also one in which two women could be married without explanation — did not exist, she realized. Soon after starting the project, she decided 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.

Lacey doesn’t stop at political revision. She also imagines how X’s work influenced real-life cultural figures, who appear throughout, and CM is meticulous in her sourcing. Footnotes that cite invented journalism (including made up New York Times articles) appear at the bottom of many pages.

A fictionalized version of the journalist and critic Renata Adler appears in the novel as a reporter who went undercover, at great personal risk, to report on conditions in the South.

The real Adler said over email that it was “sort of fun to have one’s name appear in a novel by a writer one likes and admires, cast as a journalist, an author of elaborate ‘quotations,’ in a style in which one would never write.”

The novel is clearly experimental, Adler said, and crosses the border of fact and fiction in new and challenging ways, but she expressed reservations about the extent of the novel’s invented journalistic record.

“Fiction is fiction. Falsehood, pretending to be true, and citing fabricated sources to prove and to persuade, is something else,” she said. “It misleads. That is not the intention of ‘The Biography of X,’ or fiction, at all.”

Lacey, for her part, wasn’t concerned about using the names of real artists or writers. “I wanted to give a sense of a world in which all the same things happen, but out of order,” she wrote in an email. “A writer named ‘Elvia Wilk’ or ‘Rachel Aviv’ is born decades earlier and maybe that’s the ‘same’ person as the Wilk and Aviv we have now, or maybe it isn’t. There is a lot of randomness and irreverence in these choices, too. There’s no hidden agenda or code.”

These questions mirror C.M.’s central challenge: how to arrive at a sound understanding of an individual who created and cast off identities, using her own fictions as a shield. If there was an abiding theme across X’s work and life, it was the attempt to subvert a fixed self, choosing to cycle through artistic personas and abjure her personal history. (For starters, it wasn’t until X died that C.M. discovered her wife’s actual birthplace.)

Little seems off-limits, artistically, to X — she published cult novels under pseudonyms, staged performance art with Kathy Acker, earned a MoMA retrospective before she turned 50. “With X, I was just greedy,” Lacey said. “I wanted her to be able to do everything because the more she’s done, the more there is to write about, the more there is for C.M. to find.”

In the process of putting together the novel, Lacey, like C.M., went looking for X. One of her pandemic activities was sifting through boxes of photographs from vintage shops and yard sales, allowing her to encounter snapshots of real individuals stripped of context or biography or history. Every so often, she’d discover one and think, Oh, there’s X. Those found photographs are scattered throughout the book, used to bolster the record of X’s life.

Lacey’s earlier fiction — she is the author of four previous books — has tended to focus on fugitives and interlopers. Her 2014 debut novel, “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” followed a young woman who leaves her marriage and heads to New Zealand in an effort to “divorce my own history.”

The South is a common backdrop in her writing, too. “Pew,” her most recent novel, tells the story of a mute, racially ambiguous and seemingly genderless individual who shows up in an unnamed Southern town, unsettling the community.

Pew’s uncanny ability to draw out uncomfortable truths from the surrounding community makes the character the closest stand-in for Lacey herself that Martin Pousson, a former professor of Lacey’s, has seen in her fiction. Reading that character, he said, was like seeing “Boo Radley come to life.”

Lacey, 37, was born in Tupelo, Miss., to a family that owned the hardware store where Elvis Presley bought his first guitar. She attended a boarding school in Tennessee and eventually made her way to Loyola University New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina struck the day her junior year was supposed to begin. She decamped to Chicago, and waited until it was safe to return. When she came back to New Orleans, she wrote extensively about the rebuilding of the city in her coursework, casting her eye on the opportunism and hypocrisy she witnessed, Pousson recalled. That writing was motivated by “a greater concern for what was collapsing all around her,” he said.

Brenda Cullerton, a writer and a friend of Lacey’s, attributes many of her signature qualities as a writer to her Southern upbringing. “There’s something isolating about that experience of having fled it and being both proud of it and repelled by it, and loving it — loving all of it,” she said.

She went on: “Part of that Southern forming of her character was religion. She was a real believer once upon a time. And I think her first loss was God.”

Loss, of course, is the driving force of “Biography of X,” and C.M. is animated by two strands of grief. There’s the physical loss of her wife, and then there’s the loss of the image she had of her wife, Lacey said.

C.M. is left mourning — not just for her wife, but also for the story she told herself about their relationship, her great love reduced to “just a woman, just a dead woman I thought I knew.”

These days, Lacey divides her time between Brooklyn and Mexico City — during the pandemic, she left a relationship, sold her home and cast about before alighting in Mexico City, almost on a whim. She’s written a nonfiction manuscript at last — a autobiographical book, refracted through her relationships — but has set it aside for the time being.

The last 10 years have been very stressful, Lacey said, and very productive, perhaps because writing provided relief. Now, she is in a new relationship, and her “neurosis is on ice.”

“I’m afraid I’m never going to write again,” she said. “I’m so happy now.”

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