Farrar Straus and Giroux
Review by Jinny Webber
“There will be time, there will be time / to prepare to meet the faces that you meet,” but what a different tone for the woman who went by X from Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. For her, never a “do I dare.” The talented artist, musician, and performer X doesn’t simply present different selves depending on social demands, like Prufrock. she becomes different people in Catherine Lacey’s fictional biography, as narrated by her younger widow CM after X’s death.
One of the many questions haunting this extraordinary novel concerns the nature of X’s apparent multiple personalities. Psychologists as well as novelists have long been intrigued by this phenomenon, as in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf.Near suicide from the desperate battle of the two competing aspects of his personality, spirit and nature, Henry Haller, the Steppenwolf, must understand the multiplicity of his opposite elements, in part through the revelations of a magic mirror, and through humor affirm them all.
Biography of X also deals with a kind of magic mirror dilemma. Do we consist of many social selves or a single unity? Who is the “I”? Psychology labeled the deep difference of selves, to the point of dramatic alteration of personality, behavior, and even gave it a name: Multiple Personality Disorder, now Dissociative Identity Disorder.
How does one with a form of DID affect their lover? In a sense, that’s the story of CM’s marriage to X, not that she always fully understands what was going on. Devastated by grief at the sudden loss of the wife she’s loved for seven years, CM, as X called Charlotte Malone, has no intention of writing a biography. Then to wide acclaim, an unauthorized biography appears, inane and inaccurate, that cannot stand uncorrected—at least in its initial details. Before X’s death, CM refused to give the biographer, Theodore Smith, permission to quote anything. Smith used materials collected otherwise, like letters CM regards as forgeries, and gets information about X’s birth, in particular, completely wrong. That’s all that CM wants to do: present the facts, even though she doesn’t fully have them in hand. Because she knows much of X’s character will be unfathomable, she doesn’t want to attempt a full biography. She knew all too well the “raw cruelty and brutal anger” X usually got away with because of her brilliance, audacity, and artistic talents. Not what CM wants to explore—and yet her fascination, like ours, becomes compulsive. Who was she married to? What will it cost to learn? How did the way X was treated as an infant and child influence her character, later so seemingly independent of others’ responses? Each discovery, interview, surprising piece of information leads CM deeper. She must learn not only about X’s life before their marriage but during, when X forbade her asking where she went, often suddenly, or why. Here is the initial pull of the book: revelation of the unknown.
X had many names, many personas, many selves: for her, both “self” and “fact” were fluid concepts. It oversimplifies to call her self-states Dissociative Identity Disorder, however, because rather than being dependent on others’ views of her, whichever name she went by or being she became, X acted out of her own ego, motives, and emotions.
In his TED Talk, “One Self or Many Selves,” Gregg Hendrique defines “self” as behavior through time, “foundationally shaped both by how others see us and how we see ourselves in relation to others.” Our first self-perspective comes from others: how we’re cared for as infants. We also develop our narrator self early by explaining what we’re doing and why to others: we’re formed by audiences. The core self is formed by emotions and motivations—which fluctuate. To an extent CM hadn’t realized, X had separated her selves. Clearly X isn’t her name—and how many others has she gone by? She didn’t necessarily have clinical DID, but that’s hard to judge the more we, through CM, learn.
The story is set roughly between 1970 and 1996, when X dies, in an alternative U.S. In the Great Disunion of 1945, a wall was built to divide the Northern and Southern Territories, the North recognizable today, the South an anti-technological, strict theocracy. There’s also a Wild West. Though nearly impossible, X, born Caroline Luanna Walker, managed to escape the South where she was born. The severe strictures she grew up under formed her powerful sense of identity, her rebellion, and ardent independence—and likely contributed to her variety of artistic talents. Despite her sometimes horrifying behavior, X had the magnetism to lure CM from of her easy marriage to Henry, a sculptor, and her career as a writer, and make her into what X needed.
The plot revelations keep us reading, along with a sad apprehensive tone that permeates CM’s narration. The biographical structure too is highly imaginative, complete with chapter notes and footnotes. In many respects, it can be called a postmodern novel, layering realism against fiction. X is involved with many of the central artists and performers of her time, ranging from David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Susan Sontag to Connie Converse, the long-forgotten singer/song-writer who was a central love of her life (the footnotes include mention of real articles).
In part, writing X’s biography is CM’s recreation of her damaging love for the wife she’d known so little about, an accounting of her own past and possible value for her future. Yet it’s also a puzzle about human nature, potential, and the concepts of self and fact. Beautifully written and audacious, Biography of X marks a high achievement for Catherine Lacey.