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by Delphine de Vigan and George Miller, trans.
Bloomsbury USA, May 2017
384 pages
ISBN: 1632868156

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It is easy enough to see why Delphine de Vigan's BASED ON A TRUE STORY appeals to the French, particularly those of a certain age and university education, steeped as they are in the post-structuralist criticism of Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze, especially the former, with his formulation of "reality effects." The novel has won several prestigious French literary prizes and has garnered rave reviews in the major French papers for its apparent riskiness, intimacy, and rivetting readability—its "blurring of the line between reality and fiction" (Le Monde). Such blurring, staged fictionally through a protagonist, Delphine, who has just published a highly successful novel ostensibly about her mother and is grappling with her current acclaim and subsequent writer's block, is clearly provocative for those fans who loved Vigan's previous novel NOTHING HOLDS BACK THE NIGHT, and wanted to know how much of that novel was "true" and how much fictionalized. As a rebuttal to those who insist that the real always trumps fiction because it touches readers in ways that fiction cannot, BASED ON A TRUE STORY succeeds reasonably well. Vigan weaves enough of what's known about her from written and television interviews—her emotionally-charged earlier novel about her mother, her two children (not boy-girl twins, as in the novel), her lover François (the literary critic and journalist, François Busnel), her favourite films and novels—into a narrative about the difficulties of regrouping and beginning a new project to challenge the idea that there are unplumbed depths yet to explore about her personal history. As a psychological thriller, however, BASED ON A TRUE STORY is considerably less successful.

Written in a rather plodding prose, the novel captures the exhaustion and idea-free sensibilities of Delphine, who has no resources left after her last work and can't seem to find a way into a new project. Enter, the mysterious friend, "L" (as if this were either a roman à clef or a nod to THE STORY OF O). In many respects, L is the classic femme fatale, who seduces Delphine, not sexually (Delphine is at pains to detail that her attraction to women isn't sexual) but psychologically, except that L cooks, cleans, and cares for Delphine, while acting as her secretary and bill-payer, supposedly to enable her to get on with writing her new novel. The burning questions of whether L is real, whether she is Delphine's double, or whether she is Delphine's creation of an authorial persona who allows her to write again seem to be the novel's preoccupation. Mostly, though, L is an allegory for the public at large—the public hungry for more personal details of the author, insatiable in its desire for proof that the author is tapping into some actual historical events and the emotions they generate. Shadowy and never really fleshed out (she is, almost laughably, a "ghost writer" professionally), L offers a sounding board for Delphine—and, given the relative preachiness of Delphine's responses to L, probably for Vigan herself—to rail against the contemporary love affair with the real, be it in the form of the memoire, reality television, or autobiography. And, like the classic dupe in the noir novel, Delphine is earnest and naive and has her say, but she can't really win. Except, that is, in the novel she may be writing.

Vigan plays with the tropes of noir, teases with epigraphs from Stephen King's MISERY and THE DARK HALF, and invokes Bryan Singer's THE USUAL SUSPECTS, but the reader is already there, almost before the novel arrives at the references. Granted, BASED ON A TRUE STORY signposts itself as metafiction— a novel about a writer not writing a novel, that might be the novel we are reading—but it fluctuates between clunky retreading and not-quite-clever-enough archness. True, the pages turn quickly, for there are plenty of blank spaces here; but the surprises are non-existent, for the reader will have already run through all the possibilities long before arriving at the end of the novel. For genuinely chilling creepiness in the author/public relationship, go back to King.

§ Nicola Nixon is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal.

Reviewed by Nicola Nixon, July 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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