Book Review: The Body Double
Emily Beyda's debut novel is ready for its close-up
By Robert Faires,
2:55PM, Fri. Mar. 6, 2020
You remember the final scene of Sunset Blvd.. Norma Desmond is at the top of the staircase, eyes eerily wide, lost in the mad belief that she's back on set, about to be filmed. Her devoted manservant and former director Max yells, "Action!" and Norma makes that slow, spooky, gliding descent.
Cut to: Emily Beyda's The Body Double.
Billy Wilder's 1954 vivisection of Hollywood, with its epic, all-stops-pulled-out performance by Gloria Swanson as Norma, kept floating in the background as I read this debut novel by the former Austinite (and, full disclosure, former Chronicle Food writer). The Body Double also takes a sharpened knife to Tinseltown's perverse worship of celebrity and stardom, all of which leads to a surreal blurring of identities. Where does the person end and the star begin? Or is there only the star? When it gets to the point that Jekyll is suppressed and forgotten and, as with Norma, only Hyde lives on, those of us outside that society of artifice often feel a creepiness sweep over us, the creepiness of being witness to something disturbing and wrong. As I followed Beyda's narrator deeper and deeper on her own slow, spooky descent down a Hollywood staircase into an identity no longer her own, that familiar creepiness kept washing over me. I was witness to more Hollywood-specific madness.
The narrator never names herself, making her a blank, a cipher, and thus an ideal candidate for the strange job offered her. A star has suffered a nervous breakdown and removed herself from the public eye, but rather than admit that to everyone, she wants someone to take her place, to be her face, literally, to the world, with no one able to tell that the substitute is not the true Rosanna Feld. The narrator has no self to speak of, so why not take on someone else's? That she's plucked from behind the popcorn counter of a low-rent moviehouse in a small town is a touch surely Wilder would appreciate; the narrator is a tiny cog at the bottom of the vast machinery of the Dream Factory being moved to the top to replace one of the biggest wheels.
Only the process of "becoming" Rosanna is not so simple. To Beyda's credit, she doesn't Hollywood-ize the transformation, glossing over it with a montage of a few elocution lessons, practice walking the red carpet, and a salon session where a dye job, new cut, and cosmetic makeover finish the job. The narrator is locked in a small apartment with no access to the outside world, nothing to look at but videotapes of Rosanna and magazines with photos of her in them, and nothing to do but study everything Rosanna does and practice it until she can mimic her perfectly. Then her minder, Rosanna's dutiful employee Max (a shout-out to Eric von Stroheim's character in Sunset? I like to think so) tests her and drills her until he judges her emulation sufficient to fool the paparazzi, other celebrities, and even Rosanna's close friends. She's subjected to a brutal exercise regime to shape her entire body into a copy of Rosanna's and surgery to make her face indistinguishable from the star's. And through all this, we're locked in with the narrator, suffering this claustrophobic existence with her, trapped in her head as whoever she was fades, leaving only Rosanna.
In putting us through that twisted version of solitary confinement with the narrator, we feel more keenly the release when Max finally allows her to "be" Rosanna in the outside world, to visit favorite haunts, mingle with fans, make promotional appearances, shop. Of course, it's all carefully stage managed by Max, who always brings her back to her apartment cell. The suspense over how she'll do on these excursions, though, ratchets the tension generated by the story so far to a new level and keeps it there through the rest of the book. But the narrator's contacts with people who knew Rosanna spark new questions in her about the woman she's living as and increasingly feels herself to be. She's exposed to how much she doesn't know about Rosanna, which amplifies her desire – make that need – to meet the original, the real thing so she can … what? Do a better job? Be more authentic? Or take over her identity?
And here that soundtrack to Sunset Blvd. ramped up in my head once more. Wilder understood that craving to be something bigger than everyone else, to be one of the select allowed to stand in the light and be seen – as Norma says, "There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark." Beyda gets it, too, how all of us wonderful people in the dark revere and kneel before the ones in the light and would do anything for a chance to be among them. She gives her nameless nobody that chance in a devil's bargain, and it turns out the way most deals of that kind do. Whatever she had is lost, including herself, in a dream, a fantasy of shadows. Beyda's tale is creepy, yes, but enthralling, too, and a trenchant reminder that if we wish to remain wonderful people, we might want to stay in the dark.
Emily Beyda talks about and signs copies of The Body Double Fri., March 6, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit the BookPeople website.
The Body Doubleby Emily Beyda
Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95