In a world where Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, Rihanna’s Fenty fashion brands, and pretty much everything Kim Kardashian says and does are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and the web influencers aspiring to be them break down the walls between person and product, you have to ask what the cost is to the soul — to whatever remains of the private self. Emily Beyda’s debut, “The Body Double,” attempts to answer that question through the lens of an unlikely co-conspirator.
The novel opens on an unnamed narrator, doling out popcorn and off-brand diet sodas at the concession stand of a third-run theater in an unnamed town in Middle America. A student of classical painting at her community college, she took the job to be closer to the big screen, “that smooth-surfaced place where everything is beautiful and poreless and clean,” but she’s mired instead in the oppressive stickiness of an all-night job that feels as claustrophobic as “water at the bottom of the ocean.”
At shift’s end, the young woman’s boss tells her that a man named Max has flown all the way from Los Angeles to speak with her. She’s willing to go along, primed by memories of watching movies with her grandmother “where mousy brown-haired girls like me were swept off the streets of small sad towns like this one.” It’s a fantasy as old as Hollywood itself, retooled for successive generations: 16-year-old Lana Turner discovered drinking a soda across the street from Hollywood High; Marilyn Monroe plucked out of a U.S. military facility; 14-year-old Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence spotted while on spring break in New York City.
The handsome young Max’s story is a variation on the theme: Lifestyle maven Rosanna Feld, whose mascara the narrator shoplifted from her local drugstore as a teen, has had a nervous breakdown. Too fragile to cope with her life as an influencer and brand powerhouse, Rosanna has withdrawn inside her Hollywood mansion, leaving her aspirational empire of makeup, athleisure wear and sundry other product endorsements in tatters. Only the narrator, whom the latter-day Prince Charming has been seeking for months through a web search involving a commission to informants like her boss, can help by becoming Rosanna’s body double.
This star-struck nobody will employ her uncanny resemblance to the celebrity in order to relieve Rosanna of the pressure of public appearances, and thereby “make sure the money keeps coming in until she’s back on her feet and out in the world again.” Max closes the deal with a hard-nosed business proposition: The narrator must work for the influencer for three years under a no-cut contract in return for $100,000 a year, to be deposited into a Swiss account set up in an LLC under a phony name. Her housing and all living expenses will be paid and, at the end of her contract, she will be provided with a visa to any country in the world. In exchange, she will vacate her job and drop her art class, move out of her basement apartment, cut ties with what few acquaintances she has, surrender her phone and come to Los Angeles where she will be indispensable.
Sooner than you can say “Duh,” our rootless narrator is on a private jet to Los Angeles, whose industrial sprawl emerges over the horizon like a bleached-out Oz. Once there, she’s ensconced in a turreted Moorish-style apartment building. Outside, bougainvillea bloom and wild parrots congregate. But she’s locked into a one-room unit amid stacks of magazines and, eventually, interview clips and at-home movies featuring Rosanna. Nestled on a hillside among dreamy modernist boxes, French country houses and Italian villas, she embarks on her mission to study every still and moving image of Rosanna until she can successfully impersonate her in public and among her friends.
Of course, there’s something strange about this plan — enough to make you wonder why she’s fallen so easily for Max’s hype. But then there is the magical setting: the canyon, the exotic birds, Rosanna’s perfumed couture wardrobe and carefully curated diet, all provided by Max, with whom she shares a growing, unspoken attraction.
In today’s (un)reality, in which celebrities are our royalty and the brands they anoint our obsessions, the narrator’s desire to serve Queen Rosanna feels plausible. But by the novel’s midpoint, when our naive narrator has melded personalities so thoroughly with her employer that all boundaries are blurred, we question her motives. Is her desire to gain acceptance, even love, from Rosanna and Max through copying her employer’s every graceful move and puckish moue genuine? What does she really want? You might as well ask the former Sao Paulo model who spent a half-million dollars in plastic surgery to look like her idol Kim Kardashian. Or the many buyers of Goop’s vagina-scented candles.
In addition to its riffs on real-life fame and celebrity emulation, this unsettling novel also pays homage to films— most notably the unnamed characters enmeshed in a love triangle in the ’60s cult classic “Last Year at Marienbad,” screened at the narrator’s old theater, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” whose plot points find parallels here. Yet it is literature, particularly fairy tales and other folklore, that give the novel its nightmarish pull and eerie resonance. “Rapunzel” and “Bluebeard” come most readily to mind, but so do the Arabian Nights tales and countless others — some of which Max reads aloud as our narrator is recovering from plastic surgery.
Falling under the knife, literally, marks the final frontier in our narrator’s transformation into Rosanna 2.0. She is re-created as a fame monster, a Frankenstein for our times: “I am something strange and raw and new, newborn. I am something that has never been before, in this world or any other … on the edge of everything, I stand at the curb and look down over this city, the darkness spilling out from the foot of the mountain like the hem of a black dress.” The action that follows, with its Gothic overtones and dire implications, carries on in the bold tradition of Mary Shelley’s classic.
Fame and power, artifice and beauty — Emily Beyda has a lot on her mind, suffusing “The Body Double” with a power that will linger with readers, bubbling to the surface at every breathless turn of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Her talent and ability to move us, recombining ancient tropes with the media we consume and internalize, makes “The Body Double” a dazzler, definitely on my personal list of best debuts of the year.
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.
By Emily Beyda
Doubleday: 304 pages; $26.95