Author Catherine Lacey sits down with Document, discussing her latest novel’s take on narcissism, art-world celebrity, and the tragedy of US history

Early in Catherine Lacey’s beguiling new novel The Biography of X, the narrator C.M. Lucca recalls her wife—the iconoclast artist X—suggesting they rough up another writer working on an unauthorized and unwanted biography about her career:

“We might as well get right to it and have someone break his legs, or maybe just one leg or, better yet, a hand. Did I notice whether he was left- or right-handed? I felt then, as I often felt, that I was a mobster’s wife, better off looking the other way.”

Violence, in its many subtle and overt expressions, permeates The Biography of X—a sweeping, ambitious novel about art-world celebrity, the tragedy of US history, and how narcissism can both destroy and save us. The story follows former journalist and recent widow C.M. Lucca, who—following the publication of that other author’s biography—seeks to set the record straight about her dead wife X. Digging into her past, however, and interviewing a parade of former collaborators, rivals, and friends, opens a Pandora’s box of secrets, revealing that the woman C.M. Lucca shared a life with was far more complex and cruel than she’d ever imagined.

There’s a noirish texture to The Biography of X, with the narrator’s research sending her on goose chases, interviewing a maze of Southern Christian fanatics, New York City socialites, and Italian activists. In many noirs, the protagonist—often detectives, but also journalists—discovers that the closer they get to the ‘truth,’ the less knowable the ‘truth’ becomes. C.M. Lucca, in trying to write the ‘definitive’ biography of X, eventually confronts this messy reality: that there is no one authentic story about a human being, not even for those closest to us. For her, this is a violent revelation—one that disfigures her own sense of self as much as her understanding of X, the great love of her life.

I’ve been reading Lacey’s work since 2003, when we met during our first week at Loyola University New Orleans. I feel lucky to have witnessed her evolution as an artist—from her early forays in creative nonfiction to her inventive, heady novels to The Biography of X, which, though also fiction, feels too expansive to simply be called a novel. Throughout, it blends fact and fiction, wholly rewriting US history and casting living novelists, journalists, and poets as sources on X’s life. The book is a provocative project—one that mirrors and refracts our own cultural obsession with celebrity and our nation’s broken politics.

Not unlike her prose, Lacey is warm and chatty, her thoughts often veering off in uncanny directions. It’s something I’ve always admired about the voice of her fiction—the way her characters’ narration wanders, indulging in detours and scenic routes, before concluding at eerie thematic vistas and insights. The narrator in X, however, is perhaps more controlled than usual, her cool voice belaying much hurt, grief, and rage. Though the book is ostensibly about X—a visionary performance artist and cult writer, a music producer for Tom Waits and David Bowie, a visual artist with a retrospective at MOCA—I found myself just as drawn to its more humble narrator, and the ways she submerges her own needs to appease her charming, charismatic, and ruthless wife. At its essence, The Biography of X is about the often frustrating and violent nature of love. Because to fully understand someone, in all their complexities, one must celebrate their beauty as well as their venom.

“Even if you haven’t grown up with that, there’s a certain kind of person, like X, that’s so good at creating a narrative around themself. You can get swept up with it.”

Sammy Loren: One of the things I found most compelling about The Biography of X was the dynamic between C.M. Lucca and X. Like many relationships, there is this dance between pleasure and pain, love and hatred, where you almost can’t tell the difference. What is it about someone who is powerful and dangerous and has a brutality in them like X that is attractive to someone like C.M.?

Catherine Lacey: I think it’s narcissism. A lot of people go through this, especially if you had a parent or an early love affair that established that deifying someone is the same as being in love with them. A lot of people that grew up in a religious atmosphere, similar to mine, have this problem, too. Because the foundation for the idea of love is being subjugated. The Christian love of God and love of Jesus that I grew up with—especially if you’re female—is very much about putting yourself at the mercy of someone. Even if you haven’t grown up with that, there’s a certain kind of person, like X, that’s so good at creating a narrative around themself. You can get swept up with it. That’s where cult leaders come from. That’s where religions come from. It’s almost like being persuasive without even trying to be persuasive. That’s the most dangerous person—not somebody who’s actually trying to control you. When you are finding a partner, you often look for someone who has qualities very different from your own, and I think that’s part of what sustains the relationship. If there’s something about the other person that you feel so far from and it’s like, How are they that way? And that question ends up being an animating force of erotic desire.

Sammy: Do you look at X as sort of a narcissistic celebrity?

Catherine: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know a million of these people—you meet them and you’re like, What is so weird about this person? And then you realize that they’re surrounded by sycophants. You see micro versions of these people, like minor cult leaders—it’s not necessarily even negative. X’s childhood was so damaging, and the world she’s from was so manipulative, that I think you have to be a raging narcissist to get out of communities like that. It takes a huge amount of self-belief, which is adjacent to narcissism. For X, it sort of snowballed over the years as a survival strategy.

Sammy: X grows up in the South.

Catherine: A very extreme, much, much worse theocracy version of the South.

Sammy: What do you think coastal elites get wrong about the South?

Catherine: Everything. People think that it must be this kind of theocracy, like it is in the book. It’s a much more politically mixed place, but it is controlled by a church-going culture. When people feel like they’re weird in the South, they tend to keep their mouth shut. I know a lot of queer people that live there now. I’m surprised every time I go back.

“The fact that they’re lesbians is the least interesting thing about them. It’s not even really mentioned. There’s so much energy you end up wasting when you’re having to justify your existence before you can do anything else.”

Sammy: I love the novel’s alternative history—that the US breaks into three countries and Bernie Sanders becomes president; that the South builds a wall and turns into a Christian theocracy, and the North a socialist nation where Emma Goldman is a transcendent political figure. I wonder what you think X would make of our America?

Catherine: She would probably be on the dark web, right? Be a Dimes Square elder or something. I think she would choose the most combative position possible. The reason the book is the way that it is, is that I wanted these two women to be the people they were. That’s why the American history stuff is the way it is. The fact that they’re lesbians is the least interesting thing about them. It’s not even really mentioned. There’s so much energy you end up wasting when you’re having to justify your existence before you can do anything else. And if we remove that obstacle, then she can become a novelist, a publisher, a music producer.

Sammy: She can also become a full human, in that she can be all these great things and also all these horrible things. She can just be a regular monster.

Catherine: A regular monster, yeah.

Sammy: That’s what was fascinating about the alternative history. Even when you take away all of these prejudices, and you live in a quasi-socialist utopia, all these hierarchies between two people remain.

Catherine: Abusive, narcissistic people will exist even if everybody has universal basic income and healthcare. I don’t have any delusions about the human spirit; people would [just] have more time to indulge their narcissistic qualities.

Sammy: It’s a bottomless pit.

Catherine: I like the idea of arguing with the concept that narcissism is always negative. I want that word to get reinvented, or given more dimension. There definitely are abusive narcissists, but I wish that narcissist wasn’t always a negative word.

Sammy: I see X as an alpha.

Catherine: She’s sort of like a cowboy, you know?

Sammy: Yeah, in this American way that’s very readable to us. Something I also see, hidden throughout, is this sense of X taking a million lovers—and it’s charming, how the biographer is so naïve about it. X is this Southerner that escapes and becomes this cowgirl in the West, and then a New York art star. Is there a relationship between promiscuity and wanting to be different people?

Catherine: For sure. It’s through other people that you find different versions of yourself. I think a lot of friendships end when people can’t find who they used to be, with that [other] person. You and I have been friends for 20 years; there’ve been many different phases of that friendship. There’s something interesting that happens when you start to accumulate versions of yourself, between you and another person over time. Having sex with someone is the fastest way that you can see yourself as a totally different person, you know? What you’re picking up on is that X was probably doing all sorts of stuff off-the-page, like that kind of promiscuity. I see no problem with it, morally. A person like X would maybe be using sex to access different corners of her own power—different corners of her persona. But, I mean—if you’re gonna be promiscuous, do it because it’s fun, not because you wanna have power over somebody else.

“People go insane if they can’t form a coherent story about who they are, or where they’re from. Think about what’s been going on in America. I don’t feel like the country has a coherent sense of itself.”

Sammy: That gets to the heart of the book, too—there’s a question about who our partners are. I mean, C.M. writes a biography about X, who she thought she knew. And then the whole biography is like, I never really knew this person, to a certain extent.

Catherine: I would push against that. I feel like that keeps coming up in interviews and reviews, this, We can never really know the people that we’re with. That must be in the book. I just would’ve made more counterpoints, too, if I had realized how big of an idea it is.

Sammy: I’m not trying to suggest that she doesn’t know X. I’m saying there’s something about people that we can’t ever actually know. And that’s what’s compelling about them.

Catherine: Of course. It’s that gap that you’re trying to bridge, and that’s what keeps people together. When you start to think that you know everything about the person you’re with—one, you’re definitely wrong, because nobody can know everything about another person. And two, you shouldn’t be in that relationship anymore.

Sammy: Throughout the book, there’s a blending of fact and fiction. I’m curious, what was it about that impulse to rewrite who we are that was interesting for you to dig into with this book?

Catherine: People go insane if they can’t form a coherent story about who they are, or where they’re from. Think about what’s been going on in America. I don’t feel like the country has a coherent sense of itself. There’s parts of the South that would like to go back to 1850, and parts of the South that would like to go to the year 3000. What are we aiming for as a country? We’re too large, we don’t have common goals. I kind of feel like it would make sense if we split into a number of different countries. And I don’t think I’m the only person advocating for that. I’m not a political theorist at all, but I’m fantasizing as a citizen.

Sammy: We’re living in a very divisive moment in human history. In America, it’s on steroids, but even little countries that are homogenous are tearing themselves apart.

Catherine: There’s no utopic answer. I wanted to be clear: Even if the US had split into different countries, as it does in the novel, it’s not like the North would be some kind of socialist utopia. I don’t feel like there is a utopia.

Sammy: I have this vivid memory; it must have been 2003. I’m walking into the quad at Loyola and you’re sitting there, writing in your Five Star notebook. I’m like, What are you doing? You’re like, I’m writing—I’ve always wanted to be a writer. If you had to go back in time and talk to that version of yourself, what would you say?

Catherine: I feel like I would say to her—and this is kind of crass—to have sex with women sooner. Like, don’t be worried about it. Because I feel that was my main crisis, underneath what I thought my problems were. And, also, I would tell her bisexual people exist. That’s it.