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

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.

Based on a True Story

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 384 pages
Author: Delphine de Vigan
Price: $24.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-05

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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