“True” Stories and Confidence, or the lack thereof

  • Elizabeth Renzetti (Author)
    Based on a True Story. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Russell Smith (Author)
    Confidence. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Philip Miletic

Whenever a novel or a film is based on a true story, it is immediately met with skepeticism—how much of the “truth” is that story based on, and how far from the “truth” did it stray. And the word “confidence” or someone displaying such extreme levels of confidence is met with irony and disbelief that anyone could be really that confident. Elizabeth Renzetti’s debut novel Based on a True Story and Russell Smith’s short story collection Confidence delve into the skepticism and irony that are now commonly associated with “true stories” and “confidence.” And yet, both authors introduce a touch of sadness and sympathetic prose that balances the irony and satire of their stories.

Renzetti’s Based on a True Story is a satire that sparks with wit and sharp humour, commenting on (our obsession with) celebrity culture and the journalism that chases down those celebrities. The novel follows Augusta Price, a washed-up soap opera actress fresh out of rehab, who has just published her memoir, Based on a True Story. Price finds out that an ex-lover of hers, Kenneth Deller—or his radio personality, Mr. Romance—may be writing a book about her. She recruits Frances Bleeker, a struggling American journalist who wrote a damning article on Augusta in a British tabloid, to aid her in her quest for “revenge” that takes them to California. At the centre of the novel, as its title alludes to, is the critique of the celebrity memoir, especially since the memoir boom of the 1990s. Renzetti not only questions the validity of memoirs, but also argues that these memoirs are, as is always the case, one POV of past events and quite often suppress emotionally personal events of the writer. Renzetti demonstrates this by weaving Augusta’s memoir, Frances’ article on August, and Kenneth’s POV throughout the story, establishing the relational web that forms these characters’ identity(-ies): the celebrity persona, the personal/private, and the tabloid/journalistic eye. Together, a more intimate portrait of Augusta is created. However, Based on a True Story becomes rather tangled as the book approaches its dénouement. Although the woven narratives flesh out and reveal the life of Augusta and bring her down from washed-up celebrity to a human being, the plot meanders and ends rather anticlimactically. Augusta’s character comes nearly full circle, remaining the flat satirical caricature of a celebrity that she was in the beginning, and the other characters’ subplots feel incomplete. Based on a True Story contains moments of hilarity and humorous satire, yet the stabs at fandom and its treatment of drug and alcohol abuse comes off as rather callous.

The Torontonian characters in the short stories of Russell Smith’s Confidence have anything but confidence, looking to lies, drugs, fantasizing about others, affairs, and money (that they do not have) to create an illusion of confidence. The characters in these stories are seeking confidence in themselves, in their relationships, in their city, and in their work. But in seeking confidence, they defer their work, abuse their relationships, desire gentrification, and/or abuse themselves. Smith’s satirical eye of the selfish woes of the Torontonian white middle-class, however, is not without care. Smith’s characters are not two-dimensional, unlikable cut-outs. Rather, the reader gets a glimpse into how conflicted, insecure middle-class individuals will slouch towards these affectless and snobbish caricatures in order to gain something like confidence. So while there is critique of these middle-class “troubles,” the reader still cares about these individuals, about how they are hurting themselves and those around them. The stories that stand out are “Crazy,” whose main character is lauded by friends and family of his girlfriend as a wonderful boyfriend when he is anything but and feels trapped by that lie. “Research” is terrific in the stylistic choice to have its two PhD students (who are coming down from a drug) talk in incomplete sentences, reflecting the deferral and incompleteness of their dissertation, and of their happiness and of realities that they avoid. “Gentrification” contains a couple that hopes that their area becomes gentrified, and the husband expresses happiness once hints of gentrification occur and he is able to sexually fantasize about a black woman tenant of his without having to actually “deal” with her and her friend any longer. At times Smith leans over into heavy-handedness in his satire, yet this is overcome by his rounded characters and poignant prose. Confidence is an excellent collection of short stories that delves deeply into the psyche and sadness of those who hopelessly strive for confidence or something like it by any means necessary.

 



This review ““True” Stories and Confidence, or the lack thereof” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 149-150.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.