'Based on a True Story' Won't Take Hold of You

by Subashini Navaratnam

3 October 2017

 
cover art

Based on a True Story

Delphine de Vigan

(Bloomsbury)
US: May 2017

Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story opens in a self-referential way, indicating a desire to intentionally blur the boundaries between literary genres: “And as I write the phrase, ‘how L. came into my life’, I’m aware of how stuffy the expression sounds: a bit overblown; the way it emphasises a narrative arc that does not yet exist; a desire to announce a turning point or plot twists.” It’s an arresting start, as the narrator sets the tone by knowingly acknowledging the narrative arc that will keep readers turning the pages.

Gradually, we learn that the narrator is a writer who wants to tell readers the story of how L. entered her life and details start to emerge. The narrator is named Delphine, and she’s on some press engagements for a recently-published book that seems to be a memoir. It appears to have been a difficult book that mined some of her more traumatic experiences with her family. This sounds very much like de Vigan’s previous book, Nothing Holds Back the Night. The title, meanwhile, plays coyly with the reader’s expectations based on what they know about the narrator in the book and the author. So far, so meta.

When we meet the narrator Delphine, she’s warily and cautiously approaching her public duties as a writer, going on speaking engagements and meeting readers who have felt an emotional connection to her work. But the boundary she set up to protect her inner self from her public duties is beginning to crumble: “I’d become permeable. Vulnerable.” By the time she refuses to sign a book for someone after the designated autograph session was over, she confesses: “I can’t even write my name anymore. My name’s a fake, a hoax.”

It’s an interesting choice of words and a tantalising clue about her state of mind. And it’s in this state of vulnerability that she meets L. The first half of this book is a slow burn of intensity. Delphine is taken by L.‘s smooth, cultivated veneer of femininity, so different from her own “dishevelled” self, or so she thinks. L. comes into her life and is immediately on an intimate footing, establishing a camaraderie that slightly bewilders Delphine even as it enchants and pulls her further into L.’s orbit.

As they become closer, things appear odder. L. claims to have gone to school with Delphine in the same year, but is not in the class photo because she was supposedly sick on that day. She knows intimate details of Delphine’s close circle from that time. Meanwhile, nasty letters have begun to arrive at Delphine’s apartment that refer to her recent memoir, and there’s a suggestion that it’s written by a family member: “It’s a drag. Being part of your family, having the same name as you is a drag. You have appropriated that name, sullied it, shat on it.” This causes further chinks in Delphine’s fragile armour. She begins to retreat from the world, into herself, and into the world that L. and she have created. Delphine is not a loner; she claims to have long-standing friendships, has a partner with whom she has a stable relationship although they don’t live together, and is close to her university-age children.

Yet there’s a sense that Delphine is unmoored, rudderless. Her partner François is a journalist and frequently travelling; her children are getting ready for university and are about to fly the coop; her close circle of friends are curiously nowhere to be seen. As a result, she gravitates closer adn closer to the increasingly parasitic L., who’s totally and utterly devoted to Delphine’s writing.

Writers want nothing else than someone who is totally devoted to their words, and one assumes this is why Delphine allows her to get closer, even though the reader is shifting uncomfortably in her seat because all the signs suggest that Delphine should be maintaining distance from L. As Delphine herself notes, if L. were a man insinuating herself into Delphine’s life in this way, the alarm bells would have started ringing from their first meeting. But as Delphine herself admits on the second page, “I experienced amazing moments of complicity with her.” This suggests that Delphine, in a way that could be interpreted as self-affirming and self-sabotaging, wants L. in her life.

In her devotion to Delphine’s life’s work, L. lapses into monologues about what writing should be, telling Delphine that her next book should delve deeper into her autobiography: “That’s what readers expect of novelists: that they’ll lay their guts out on the table.” This takes on an urgency as the book progresses: no matter what, L. is always there to push Delphine into writing, but only if Delphine does it by bleeding on the page. It has to be about the Real, it has to be about Truth. None of this imaginary stuff of fiction. This is pretty rich coming from L., who is a ghostwriter (even if she is a star ghostwriter, and a sought-after one for celebrity memoirs and autobiographies). But it’s an interesting and telling fact in that both L.‘s professional and personal life seems to consist of feeding on the experience of others.

As a result, Delphine finds herself increasingly unable to write, not even an email or a note. She struggles with the conception of her next book, digging through old notes and trying to resurrect old ideas. The nasty letters continue to arrive. Baring so much of herself in her previous book has taken its toll, and one gets the sense that she just wants her next book to be a restful, straightforward work of fiction. In the midst of this, L. moves in temporarily into Delphine’s place, and certain questions arise: how is L. such a huge part of Delphine’s life without anyone else in her life having met her? L. takes over Delphine’s administrative writing.

There’s an intense argument one day, after which L. moves out as suddenly as she had moved in. There’s no contact but suddenly she reappears again after Delphine falls down the stairs and fractures her leg. The tension in the novel escalates when they both take off to François’ house in the country for ease of movement and recuperation. Most of the book’s action takes place in the last quarter of the book.

Despite the intriguing set-up of the novel, the effect is curiously flat and it’s only towards the last hundred pages of the novel that the tension is maintained and the stakes are raised as the line between imagination and reality are raised. The biggest problem is the style and language. I have not read de Vigan’s previous books and can’t read French. But her prose in George Miller’s translation is pedestrian and generic. For a book about a writer who deals primarily with words, this is strange. It’s workaday prose that fails to ignite much anticipation during the first half of the book, which reads like a dutiful report of L.’s behaviour. A first-person novel that deals with a character’s interiority, because it relies utterly on the narrator’s voice, needs a unique sensibility and language that enables the reader to see things differently. There was little of the pleasure and beauty of language that made me want to reread sentences or linger over words. It’s hard to tell whether this is the effect of a dull, too-literal translation.

As a result, I hung on ‘till the end precisely to see how it would end, but it required effort to maintain interest. I had a sense of how the ending was going to be; still, it’s slippery enough to leave readers arguing over interpretation. But it’s not enough, either as a literary work of metafiction or as a “compulsive psychological thriller” as described in the blurb. The ending feels like a cop-out, and readers who read for entertainment might feel cheated, and those who read for the pleasure of language will be left wanting. The question of who wrote the nasty anonymous letters is never answered. In fact, the whole book is a non-answer, and to take that risk, the author has to give something in return: a fleshed-out plot, more action, or elevated language.

Sometimes L. comes off like a Greek chorus of the voices of literary critics, reviewers, and readers. Sometimes L. seems like a version of the woman Delphine wants to be and is both intimidated by and afraid of. At a base level it’s an intriguing premise and there are some scenes full of chilling possibility in a psychoanalytic sense, like Delphine’s dreams and her memories, her sense of being watched. There’s a scene where she wakes up in the middle of the night when L. is staying over that unnerved me, and I wanted more. I wish de Vigan had opted to give us more scares; the sense of the uncanny is often unsettling and menacing, and there were moments here that were ripe for more development in that vein.

I could say more, but to say more is to give the ending away. I’ve reached my own conclusion about the ending, and for me, the whole set-up was not worth it for what I think happened. I would have liked for this to be the kind of story that stayed in my mind for a period of time.

Based on a True Story

Rating:

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