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Del­phine de Vi­gan is pre­oc­cu­pied by the na­ture of lit­er­ary and au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal truth. In Noth­ing Holds Back the Night (2013), de Vi­gan of­fered an ap­par­ently fac­tual ac­count of her fam­ily his­tory, in­ter­twined with long pas­sages of fic­tional cre­ation, which then mod­u­lated into an os­ten­si­bly con­ven­tional form of mem­oir about her mother’s jour­ney to sui­cide. The book was met with a great deal of ac­claim, much crit­i­cal con­ster­na­tion (was this a novel? a mem­oir? a work of aut­ofic­tion?), and an enor­mous – and enor­mously re­spon­sive – ar­ray of read­ers. And the ef­fect, for de Vi­gan, proved dev­as­tat­ing.

If, that is, we are to be­lieve the de­scrip­tion we are of­fered of her emo­tional state at the open­ing of her new work, Based on a True Story (trans­lated from French by Ge­orge Miller), in which the nar­ra­tor (a ver­sion of de Vi­gan) finds her­self over­whelmed by the ef­fects of hav­ing “writ­ten a book whose im­pact I couldn’t have fore­seen”. She is dis­mayed by the “col­lat­eral dam­age” it has caused within her fam­ily. She is ex­hausted by en­coun­ters with read­ers (“I hadn’t imag­ined that some would cry in front of me, nor how hard it would be for me not to cry with them”). She feels that a ter­ri­ble reck­on­ing – “a thor­ough stock­tak­ing, if not a set­tling of the score” – is on its way. And she is haunted by ques­tions about the fu­ture of her ca­reer (“What are you go­ing to write af­ter this … What can you write af­ter this?”), and about whether she has cast her­self into lit­er­ary sta­sis by com­pos­ing “A book be­yond which there was noth­ing, be­yond which noth­ing could be writ­ten”.

In the midst of this pe­riod of tur­moil, de Vi­gan at­tends a party at which she en­coun­ters a fig­ure who is re­ferred to only as L. Ini­tially, L looks as if she will bring to de Vi­gan’s life a sense of in­ti­macy and re­as­sur­ance; a vi­car­i­ous ap­pre­hen­sion of the at­tributes de Vi­gan feels she has al­ways lacked (“L was per­fect … I felt in­tim­i­dated by such a calmly as­sured woman. L was ex­actly the sort of woman who fas­ci­nates me. L was im­pec­ca­ble, with her smooth hair and per­fectly filed ver­mil­ion nails that seemed to gleam in the dark”); and an un­canny abil­ity to in­tuit her pri­vate anx­i­eties. When de Vi­gan tells her about the emo­tional toll the pub­li­ca­tion of her book has ex­acted, L re­sponds by say­ing that “you must some­times feel very alone, as though you were stand­ing com­pletely naked in the road” – a phrase de Vi­gan recog­nises, hav­ing used it (in con­ver­sa­tion with some­body other than L) only a few days ear­lier.

Fol­low­ing these ini­tial and un­set­tling en­coun­ters, the women be­come fast friends. But the intensity of L’s af­fec­tion for de Vi­gan as­sumes an in­creas­ingly sin­is­ter and ob­ses­sive char­ac­ter. They ex­pe­ri­ence a froideur aris­ing from a dis­agree­ment about what de Vi­gan ought to write next (L wants de Vi­gan to write the truth about the con­se­quences of pub­lish­ing her last book; de Vi­gan wants to write some­thing closer to pure fic­tion). As the novel pro­gresses, L be­comes a de­bil­i­tat­ingly dis­rup­tive pres­ence in de Vi­gan’s life. She starts to dress like her. She at­tempts to as­sume her iden­tity by of­fer­ing to han­dle her cor­re­spon­dence. Even­tu­ally, she works her way into ev­ery as­pect of de Vi­gan’s life so com­pre­hen­sively as to threaten to de­stroy her.

Within this rel­a­tively sim­ple nar­ra­tive lies a con­cern that lends ad­di­tional weight and in­ter­est to de Vi­gan’s nar­ra­tive, and this con­cern cen­tres on the iden­tity of L. Is she a real per­son? Is she a kind of ev­ery­woman (“L” teas­ingly in­vites “elle”)? Or is she a fig­ure of pro­jected fan­tasy, the prod­uct of de Vi­gan’s rav­aged imag­i­na­tion? It is telling that she seldom in­ter­acts with other fig­ures in the book. And when she does, it is of­ten to be­have in the kind of way de Vi­gan might like to, were she pos­sessed of a dif­fer­ent kind of char­ac­ter.

De Vi­gan keeps these ques­tions ar­rest­ingly un­re­solved, and in­te­grates them with her broader story with el­e­gance and sub­tlety. She is also ca­pa­ble of writ­ing with vivid­ness and pre­ci­sion (“L’s body bal­anced on a bar stool was like static chore­og­ra­phy that dis­pensed with mu­sic and at­tracted glances”). Cu­mu­la­tively, and de­spite de Vi­gan’s ten­dency to use the oc­ca­sional in­ert or inat­ten­tive phrase, these qual­i­ties re­sult in a novel that is con­cep­tu­ally bold, in­tel­lec­tu­ally en­gag­ing, of­ten aes­thet­i­cally re­ward­ing, and al­most al­ways near-pre­pos­ter­ously ab­sorb­ing. Based on a true story this book might be. But in its strong­est mo­ments, it em­bod­ies the sin­gu­lar strengths of fic­tion.

Matthew Adams is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Na­tional. ed. Mahvesh Mu­rad and Jared Shurin So­laris, March 6

A story col­lec­tion that draws upon the hu­man fal­li­bil­ity of jinn in tales by Kamila Sham­sie, Kuzhali Man­ick­avel, Amal El Mo­htar and Sophia Al Maria, among oth­ers. The edi­tion in­cludes Neil Gaiman’s Some­where in Amer­ica, an ex­tract from Amer­i­can Gods.

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Sto­ries

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