She Never Existed. Catherine Lacey Wrote Her Biography Anyway.

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.”

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