Metatextual Games Stamp Out Thriller Conventions in ‘Based on a True Story’

French author Delphine de Vigan is very successful at setting up an original mystery, but she gets bogged down in overly literary reflections.

Based on a True Story is a thriller by French novelist Delphine de Vigan, and from an editorial point of view, it’s already a great success. It sold half a million copies in France, won the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt des lycéens, and was turned into an upcoming film by none other than Roman Polanski (the release date is set for November in France).

There is certainly a lot that is intriguing about this story. This being a thriller, I’ll explain the premise and then refrain from making any plot development explicit: Based on a True Story is the first-person account of a writer who experiences a period of creative sterility and deep personal stress following the publication of a highly successful novel. Harassed by threatening anonymous letters which accuse her of having revealed intimate secrets in her last publication, the protagonist stops writing altogether.

In the midst of this, the writer meets a mysterious woman referred to simply as L., and the two seem to get along very well. But what starts as an enthusiastic friendship soon turns into a toxic, vampiric relationship which threatens to finish the writer both creatively and physically.

So far, this might seem like a relatively ordinary thriller. What gives the story its spin is its deeply metatextual nature: the writer in question is, in fact, de Vigan herself, in the aftermath of the great success of her previous novel, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (Nothing Holds Back the Night). As she combines elements of truth and fiction, Based on a True Story does a clever job at interweaving autobiographical account with fictional narrative, blurring the edges between the two.

The fact that the novel operates on such an elusive textual plane has the effect of blowing open the possibilities of the mystery story. L. could be a diegetic character, such as an overly zealous literary admirer or just a random psycho, but she could also be a projection of de Vigan’s mind, a hallucination or an imaginary friend a la Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Or she might be something even more complex, perhaps a narrative expedient to narrate the story of the author herself, or maybe an embodiment of a concept like creativity, which keeps slipping out of de Vigan’s grasp.

The possibilities are many and the nature of the guessing game feels very fresh, even in a genre that is fast becoming saturated with unreliable narrators. Unfortunately, this originality is offset by the slow pace of the proceedings. Based on a True Story has a ton of self-reflection and introspection, and not very much in the way of dialogue and events. While the compulsion of the mystery keeps you reading, it takes a long time before anything creepy or disturbing actually happens, and everything until then is just a very mundane tale of two women meeting, having coffee or dinner, or going to the cinema. The author tries to counter this by doing a lot of foreshadowing, opening many of the chapters with an argument to the effect of “I can’t believe how ordinary it all seems in retrospect, having seen how dark it all turned out”, but by the time I’d come halfway through the novel without finding a single iota of darkness, I was getting a little tired of this gimmick and even of the story.

You could argue this imbalance, with introspection favoured so heavily over action, is a necessity dictated by the premise. I might respond that an effective thriller-writer would be able to weave the action into the introspection, but that wouldn’t be wholly pertinent either, for the real issue here, manifest once you finish the book, is that this isn’t really a thriller. De Vigan dresses up the novel with all the staples of the genre and she is initially successful at creating a sense of unease and intrigue, but ultimately she is more interested in her meditations on art and creativity than in the resolution of her mystery. In brief, this is a literary novel dressed up as a thriller.

This might have worked better had the author been more transparent from the beginning. As it stands, she builds expectations towards a clever twist or reveal but the payoff never comes. The clues that you pick up from the narrative don’t point to anything unforeseen, and the resolution of the anonymous letters received by the narrator is particularly anti-climactic.

The novel’s elucubrations on the relationship between reality and fiction are interesting, but the first half of the novel whets your appetite for a different type of mental exercise, and when this is not satisfied, disappointment is inevitable. I’m aware that this may have been part of the game the author was playing, that of setting up an expectation and then pulling the rug from under the reader’s feet. However, this awareness doesn’t make the final disappointment any less unpleasant, nor the reading experience any richer.

RATING 5 / 10
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