Book Review: Based On A True Story, by Delphine de Vigan
Based On A True Story, by Delphine de Vigan
Based On A True Story
By Delphine de Vigan
Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

In a way it’s easy to describe to American audiences the plot of celebrated French author Delphine de Vigan’s new book, Based On A True Story; it’s essentially an intellectual version of the old B-pic thriller Single White Female, in which a public artist meets and gets along with one of her fans, the fan turns obsessive, and the fan eventually attempts to take over the artist’s life, moving into her house and gaining access to her email and eventually even showing up to public events dressed and acting like her.

But this gets a lot more complicated and metafictional when it comes to de Vigan’s book; for the artist being stalked is her herself, the whole thing written as a true memoir even though it clearly is not, the project inspired by the fact that the last novel de Vigan published, 2011’s Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (Nothing Holds Back the Night), was a semi-autobiographical novel about coping with her real-life mother’s bipolar disorder, which made her a mainstream celebrity in France but also garnered her passionate hatred among certain circles for “exploiting” the real-life mental illness of another person for her own personal gain.

#DelphineDeVigan's #BasedOnATrueStory is essentially an intellectual version of #SingleWhiteFemale Click To Tweet

What True Story is, then, is a meditation on where exactly the slippery line lays between real-life events and made-up details when it comes to the act of a novelist writing a fictional novel, the same subject famously explored in John Irving’s The World According to Garp; but instead of doing this the usual dry academic way of writers her type, here she presents it as a supermarket pulp, clearly taking a cue off Paul Auster by weaving herself into this story of fandom gone wrong, even while cleverly presenting the details in a way so that it might turn out that the mysterious “L.” is in fact a figment of de Vigan’s stressed, overly exhausted, nearly burnt-out imagination.

(None of de Vigan’s friends ever meet L; she always rents pre-furnished apartments so to leave no trace of herself after leaving; the fake emails she sends out to de Vigan’s friends are always in de Vigan’s name; the details she tells de Vigan about her personal life turn out to have all been culled from the books in de Vigan’s library, etc.)

It’s a very clever and thought-provoking book, not just an astute examination of the creative process but also a commentary on the times we currently live in, when reality TV and edgy documentaries are all the rage, and more and more of those reality-fans are complaining about “why should they care” about a “bunch of stuff that never happened” when it comes to contemporary fiction. De Vigan clearly has some complicated issues regarding the public reaction to her last book, and also clearly struggled with the question of what to write next, of how one could ever return to fiction after having suffered such a maelstrom of public reaction from a book based mostly on real-life events.

This is one of the smartest and most entertaining ways she could’ve addressed these issues, and should satisfy even her harshest critics that she can still write compelling and dramatic stories even when not relying on the crutch of real life, even while proving that there’s still a vital and necessary place in our society for stories about a “bunch of stuff that never happened,” that fiction at its best is as moving and teaches as much about the world as any snotty serialized documentary. It comes strongly recommended today for these reasons, and will likely also be making CCLaP’s “best of the year” list come this December.

Out of 10: 9.6

Read more about Based On A True Story | Official site | Amazon | Goodreads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia |

Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd