In The Body Double, Emily Beyda’s haunting debut novel, the unnamed narrator takes on the ultimate tribute project — adopting the looks, cadences, expressions, and pretty much anything else you can name of the famous but missing celebrity Rosanna Feld. Not that the narrator is a Rosanna fan, or is even much aware of her. Rosanna’s handler Max seeks to pluck the narrator out of the American sticks to serve as Rosanna’s double. When the narrator’s boss at the movie theater where she works offers her overtime to hear Max out on the as-yet-unknown scheme, she can’t resist the appeal of capital:
He’s never offered me overtime before. This must be important. I must be worth something. How much? I think. I try to push the thought away, to tell myself I’m better than that, but I can feel it there, pressing, urgent, just below the surface. I think of all the things I could do with just a little money. The changes I could make. The bigger apartment, another semester of classes at the community college. Blackout curtains. A real bed frame.
Imagine if, in our earlier example, Björn Again put away the schtick and tried to make you think they were ABBA. Imagine the dedication that would take, the sacrifice, the diligence, the surgery, the pressure caused by the chance of betraying your true self around every corner. With such high stakes, the narrator’s pay deserves to be in kind, and she accepts the deal on the promise to be set free after three years with a six-figure severance check and a place to live in the locale of her choice. She’s young, comes from nothing. Who wouldn’t find an excuse to take the deal on the table?
There’s something appealing about duplicity. If nothing else, it’s fun to see if you can get away with it. Just like with a fake Renoir, the narrator’s biggest hope is that no one ever suspects they’re in the presence of a fraud. To this end, she requires several aspects of training and alteration — voice, style, posture, body and face contour. Getting Rosanna’s makeup just right takes weeks, with Max serving as the ultimate critic:
Max moves close to me. For a breath, he just stands there, looking. And then he sticks his thumb into his mouth and runs it down my fake cheekbone, smearing the new lines of my new face, running it, warm, wet, past the soft plane of my cheeks and down onto my chin, then up to my lips, where he rests for a long beat, as though he is quieting me, his thumb pressing hard against my teeth.
The noir elements of the tale center on the relationship between the narrator and Max as they set out to create a fake Rosanna for the real world. Beyda seeks to give you the dirty underbelly of the L.A. facade — the obsessive mindset it takes to render the illusion of an easy life with stylized friends at fashionable places, wine drunk from fishbowl-sized glasses as the sun sets into a pristine — from this angle — ocean. Whether Rosanna or close facsimile, the insistence on visual perfection is paramount. It maintains the illusion that, for a privileged few at least, gold still glitters.
The biggest dupes might be Rosanna’s fans, though it’s a little hard to believe she has them. It’s understood Rosanna is a celebrity — a kind of corporate-level it person who can juice interest in a slow-selling item of clothing simply by posting a picture of herself wearing it online. I kept wanting Rosanna to be an actress, someone whose skills extend beyond charisma and therefore merit at least some of the attention she gets. This absence of ability outside comeliness and conversation skills left a hole for me at Rosanna’s center, from which she might have shined.
The hole in Max, however, feels all-too-real, precipitous, its dark gravity pulling the narrator toward it. Not only is Max obsessed with Rosanna — wherever she might be — he also speaks with world-weary authority on life in general. As the narrator works to conjure “the real Rosanna,” Max offers his jaundiced perspective:
“No one ever knows [what anyone is really like],” says Max. “You think you know yourself, but you don’t. We tell ourselves stories about what we’re like. We assemble a set of anecdotes to show the people around us that we’re thoughtful, say, or clumsy, or have a good sense of humor. But it’s all fiction. The only true thing is just beyond our reach, the version of you held inside the people who decide to know you. That’s the best any of us can hope for. That someone decides we’re worth knowing. That they will tell our story. That they will help us decide who we are.”
The prism through which Max sees the world turns it into a hamster wheel of approval seeking. Such a skewed foundation for their project can only lead to certain unhappy outcomes. The narrator needs to run away and fast, but she’s quickly in too deep: “I can feel [Rosanna] emerging from me, a moth discarding its stiff cocoon, climbing damp and pale into the liquid light of the moon. The sensation is painful but not entirely unpleasant, a kind of pushing against, a cracking. I am getting closer every day.”
For the narrator, the project is no longer an excuse for a payday so much as a raison d’être. Her transformation into Rosanna becomes her own special kind of addiction, which is satisfied for a time when Max approves. The need for an inner life that has nothing to do with Rosanna becomes her enemy, the thing that might eventually out her to the public, that makes her less than perfect. Still, the narrator gets glimpses of other people who are not so outward-seeking, which keeps her soul tethered for a time to something more internal and forgiving. As she is driven to her first event as Rosanna, the narrator notes of another commuter:
One woman sings along to the radio, bopping her head from side to side. I am jealous of her freedom. She doesn’t even consider that there might be someone watching. She is so unselfconsciously assured of her own perfect right to be herself, to be unobserved, alone. Then again, she is wrong.
This moment is vital to the trajectory of Beyda’s novel. If someone is doing something interesting, does it happen if no one sees it? All the downed trees I step over when I hike in the forest strongly suggest that they did, in fact, at one time, fall. But the narrator’s perspective — that the woman grooving to her own drum is not alone because the narrator witnesses it — is deeply relevant to her growing unhealthy sense of things. Sure, we are never alone, not really, and certainly not today. Still, the narrator doesn’t understand that the dancing woman never claims to be alone. Rather, she claims, through the uninhibited expression of an inward moment, the right to be alone. The latter suggests that the commuter has agency over something the narrator is willingly sacrificing: the right to express her authentic soul in the world. It’s not much different from a right most of us assume when waking up in the morning, or even when a tribute band such as Björn Again walks onstage. I’m a person in a costume is leagues away from I’m a costume.
With such a spiraling outlook, the narrator follows a path toward a stunted life, one that is not likely to improve. How can forgoing her claim to an essential of humanness not doom her to a fate less than human? Then again, what’s more human than denying ourselves the things — creativity, spirituality, the right to say no — that might make us complete?
Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in The Believer, Salon, Kenyon Review, and Book and Film Globe, among many others. He was a co-founder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.