Biography of X by Catherine Lacey review – who is this mysterious artist?

Celebrated for her novels, her art installations and her musical collaborations with David Bowie, Tom Waits and Tony Visconti, the artist known as X was, until her death in 1996, one of the more enigmatic cultural figures of the 20th century. She always refused to confirm her place or date of birth, and after she took the pseudonym “X” in 1982, it was never clear which if any of her previous identities – Dorothy Eagle, Clyde Hill, Caroline Walker, Bee Converse – corresponded to her actual name. This is a biography drawing on X’s archives and a range of interviews with the people closest to her, joining the dots about her background and exploring her difficult relationship with contemporary America. And it is, like X herself, entirely a work of fiction.

Catherine Lacey, the author of this haunting, genre-bending novel, has form investigating characters with mysterious identities. Her previous book, Pew, was a gothic fable set in America’s Bible belt, narrated by an unnamed protagonist whose race, gender and age are never established. Pew, so nicknamed because they are discovered sleeping in a church, mirrors the anxieties and fractures of the world they turn up in – a world that becomes progressively weirder as we read the novel.

Though it is structured in a similar way and drawn to the same themes, Biography of X is a stranger, more ambitious and more accomplished book. The conceit is that the book’s actual author is CM Lucca, X’s widow. Annoyed by the publication of an inaccurate biography of her late wife, Lucca has resolved to set the record straight. Complete with extensive bibliography, photographs, footnotes, images of X’s books and art, and even front matter that attributes the copyright to CM Lucca, 2005, Biography of X is presented to the reader as a simulacrum of a nonfiction work. This is an enchantingly strange proposition and, like Pew, it only gets stranger.

First of all, as the prickly and somewhat self-involved CM Lucca attempts to explain her motives for writing the book, you are troubled by little oddities in the narrative. Pretty soon it becomes clear that the events of the book take place on an alternative timeline of US history in a world very different from our own. The election of a female socialist president in the 1940s has led to the secession of some of the southern states. These so-called Southern Territories have become a dictatorial theocracy complete with their own morality police. Meanwhile the north has pursued a range of radically progressive policies – a kind of wish list of enlightened thinking that ought to have created a utopia yet somehow hasn’t.

There’s something wondrous about the way the book backs into its high concept. While CM Lucca is fretting over the meaning of her relationship with X and settling scores with the other biography, a huge vista opens up behind her. It’s like looking at a family photograph in which something truly extraordinary – an avalanche or alien invasion – is taking place in the background.

It turns out that X’s origins lie across the border, in the recently reunified (or conquered?) Southern Territories. Visiting them, like a traveller to North Korea, the narrator is assigned a Travel Mentor and begins tracking down X’s family members and childhood friends. This parallel reality is evoked with brilliant specificity. One tiny example: when the narrator visits a house there, a man briefly enters the room to ask his sister for a glass of milk. “A grown man unable to pour himself a glass of milk, I thought. This is the sort of person an authoritarian theocracy produces.”

The different versions of America – one where same-sex marriage has been legal for decades, another where it’s regarded as an abomination – are clearly extrapolations from our present. Yet the conflict between their mutually uncomprehending worlds is not fuel for a polemic but presented with thoughtfulness and nuance. “Their ability to love a concept as large and appealing as God was used against them again and again,” we read of the oppressed population in the theocratic South. It’s a great line that suggests links between the speculative world of the book and the victims of other utopian schemes.

As the book uncovers details of X’s past in the Southern Territories, it forces us to re-evaluate her art, which acquires more urgent and political overtones. X’s exploration of artistic freedom and refusal to be confined by any single identity seem very different in the light of her upbringing in a virtually totalitarian world. But the move to the north is not a happy ending. X remains a contrarian to the end, ruffling feathers, bracingly defending her right to inhabit multiple personas. “There was no con, there was no crime. There was only fiction,” she says. And as the book builds to its unexpected and yet somehow inevitable conclusion, the line between life and art becomes menacingly blurry.

At times I couldn’t tell the difference between the real and imagined characters. Among X’s acquaintances are a half-Russian New York socialite, Oleg Hall, who owes his fortune to his parents’ murder-suicide, and a folk musician called Connie Converse, who vanishes in mysterious circumstances, leaving a trove of unreleased recordings. Both seemed equally bizarre; only one of them is invented.

There is so much that’s impressive about this book. It makes you think afresh about America and American history. It roves over the muddy trenches of identity politics while saying things that are original and not parti pris. At its centre, X is a charismatic, tantalising figure who takes aim at all orthodoxies. My one quibble with the novel is that there’s a tendency to apostrophise too much about the puzzles of love, art and identity at the heart of the book. The courageous world-building and bold storytelling carry these themes without any need for additional rhetorical flourishes.

It’s hard to locate influences, but one mention of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges made me think of his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. In this strange tale, objects from a fictional world penetrate our world and transform it. A lovingly made facsimile of a nonfiction book, Biography of X resembles a Tlönian artefact from a parallel reality. Though it may not change the world, it will leave the reader altered.

Biography of X by Catherine Lacey is published by Granta (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.