Friday 20 October 2017

Blurring lines between fiction and reality

Fiction: Based On A True Story, Delphine de Vigan, Bloomsbury, €18.19

French writer Delphine de Vigan
French writer Delphine de Vigan

Eilis O'Hanlon

There's nothing more fascinating to writers than the act of writing itself. This new book by an acclaimed French author is a study of what happens when crippling self-doubt sets in about the meaning of fiction.

It purports to peel back the secret of why the author had not written a single word for three years following the publication of a hugely successful semi-autobiographical novel.

The reason, she reveals, is L, a woman who entered her life when she was feeling vulnerable and gradually began to take it over.

L, a ghost writer by trade, ingratiates herself into Delphine's world. She's always available to talk; she sends her supportive notes and gifts. Having the "grace, assurance, femininity" that the author always lacked, L helps her to feel that "exclusive and imperious way of being linked with each other that you can experience when you're 17".

L insists that she went to school with the narrator, though Delphine doesn't remember her, and she's not in the one school photograph that the author still possesses.

Meanwhile, Delphine is receiving hate mail from an anonymous family member who is disgusted that she mined her mother's mental illness and eventual suicide as material for her breakthrough book - as de Vigan did with her multi award-winning novel Nothing Holds Back The Night.

Delphine becomes increasingly isolated and reliant on L. For a few months, this other woman is the only person that Delphine sees, apart from intermittent visits from the children. L begins to answer her emails and sign her cheques. Soon she starts to help the author with her new book too, and the barriers between them are further blurred.

In scenes familiar to every writer, Delphine finds that "a sort of sarcastic, pitiless super-ego had taken possession of my mind. It chuckled, mocked, grimaced". It all goes back to that previous book, whose success, she feels, was nothing but an accident. L retorts: "But an accident causes damage - sometimes irreversible damage - doesn't it?"

On one level, it all seems rather obvious that L is an imaginary alter ego created by the narrator to cope with her guilt at having exploited her family history for fiction, and the pressure that she feels in coming up with a sequel. There's never anyone around to corroborate Delphine's claim that L exists. When she goes to L's party, no one else turns up.

There are also pointed references to Stephen King's 1989 horror novel The Dark Half, about a writer who, obscure under his own name, writes bestsellers under a pseudonym. That persona comes to life and starts murdering those around the author. Nothing quite so dramatic happens here, but there are obvious parallels in this story of a parasitic twin.

There is no great twist or reveal, but it doesn't matter, because the real interest which has readers buzzing about this book is how much of it is real. Has de Vigan turned herself into a character in the novel simply to add a post-modernist sheen to a Single White Female-style narrative of a friendship gone toxic, or is she giving the fictionalised account of something that actually happened?

Underlying this book is an urgent debate about the purpose of fiction. In a world where the "omniscient, omnipotent creators" of TV dramas can "create from scratch three generations of families, political parties, cities, tribes - whole worlds, in fact", what is the point of novelists whose role they have supplanted?

For L, this is a loss to be celebrated not mourned, because it means that novelists can no longer rely on the cliches of fiction, but must deliver autobiographical truth: "That's what readers expect of novelists: that they'll lay their guts out on the table."

She's irritated when the author talks about story, saying: "You don't need a plot, Delphine, or developments. You're above all that now… You've no need to invent anything. Your life and character, the way you look at the world should be your only material. Plot is a trap, a snare." What she must deliver is "a book that smells of lived experience, 100 per cent autobiographical, here is real truth, here is life in the raw, guaranteed additive free, reality that has not undergone any transformation, especially of the literary variety". L appears at a time when Delphine needs to be told this, but insofar as L herself might be a fictional device, she is symbolic of those same traps and snares.

The book is being compared to other word-of-mouth bestsellers such as Gone Girl, but it has more of the atmosphere of one of the late Irish author Josephine Hart's sophisticated psychological dramas, such as Damage.

In a book full of nods to other works, that earlier reference to the "damage" that success can cause may have been no accident.

There's much less tension, though, and being a French novel, the traditional injunction to writers to "show not tell" is disregarded. The author says that very quickly L "exerted a real fascination over me. L surprised me, amused me, intrigued me. She scared me". But one has to be told this, rather than seeing it for oneself. Odd as it may sound, Based On A True Story is almost better to talk and think about afterwards than to read at the time. There are enough themes to keep a book club going for a year, whether it's female friendship, or ageing, or the fragility of identity and mental health, or why we still write novels at all.

It concludes with the words "THE END*" - and that little asterisk is, we've already been told, L's own trademark. The author is having the last laugh with her readers, and it's a fitting ending to a clever, stylish, cunning book.

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