The Confessions of Edward Day
by Valerie Martin
Reviewed by Dan Petrelli
Valerie Martin's The Confessions of Edward Day is a book about actors, and fittingly for that theme, it initially poses as a few different types of novel. Starting out, you might wonder if it's going to be a narration about struggling young thespians in the 1970s, or maybe a treatise on the art of acting, a snapshot of the culture, or a psychological drama. But hidden behind these layers lurks a clever reimagining of the Gothic doubles motif, a doppelganger tale in the tradition of Dostoyevsky's The Double, Poe's "William Wilson," and Shelley's Frankenstein.
Edward Day, the narrator, is plagued throughout by an enigmatic look-alike, perfectly named "Guy," who not only competes in the world of the stage but is also Edward's direct rival for their shared romantic interest, Madeleine. Following the Germanic tradition, this doppelganger crosses paths with the narrator in a number of ambiguously eerie encounters, at times materializing from the night, other times cornering Edward alone in the private setting of his dressing room. Guy always seems to carry some inexplicable character insight, and the reader is never quite sure whether he is an ordinary flesh-and-bones rival who happens to resemble Edward, or whether he will prove to be something more insidious.
The antagonism between the doubles is confounded from the start: in their first meeting, Edward is rescued from certain drowning by Guy, their unholy bond formed in the sea at night. Flushed with excitement after seducing the beautiful Madeleine, Edward takes a midnight stroll along the ocean and wanders onto a faulty pier. The railing gives away and he plummets into the ocean: "an icy clutch, sudden and absolutely silent, as if a bank vault had closed over me." Finding himself in the grips of a rip current and realizing that his own meager swimming skill will not save him, Edward calls for help from the empty beach, and abruptly a man is there to save him. Edward passes out and awakens on the shore, shocked and grateful, but there is a pair of chilling revelations ahead: that the stranger somehow knows his name, and that they look eerily alike. "That was quite a performance, Ed," his double mocks him.
The book grapples with an interesting philosophical dilemma. Already the issue of owing any stranger your life is a complex one. How deep is that debt? Where do you draw the line? But Martin complicates the matter further by putting her protagonist into a life-debt with his own doppelganger. In the Gothic tradition, the hero would murder his double, lest unchecked it usurp his role in society. But how can you think of killing the man to whom you owe your life -- even if he pesters you, hits you up for cash, and tries to steal your girl? Following their first meeting, Martin buries the possibility of a supernatural explanation under layers of reality and plausibility. Life rolls on for Edward with its normal share of ups and downs. But the thrill of the supernatural remains throbbing unnervingly below the surface. The two men seem to function in a weird sort of symbiosis; when one's career rises, the other's falls. It is as though they share not only a common face but a common pool of energy. And they have Madeleine in common also, who in the wake of Guy's heroism seems more drawn to the better swimmer of the two. Just as the true nature of Edward and Guy's relationship remains a mystery, so too do Madeleine's feelings toward them.
Of course, even if the novel plays with the conventions of the Gothic doppelganger tale, we all know it won't end like one. Whoever he is, Guy won't turn out to be a demonic usurper or a bit of mischievous ephemera to be overcome and banished back to the Realm of The Fae. That sort of explanation would have worked within the cosmology of Germanic peasant stories, but we live in a different system of beliefs now. Just as Chuck Palahniuk put a modern spin on the doubles tale by grounding Fight Club in the science of schizophrenia, Martin has her own revision of the genre in store. At the end, a new set of revelations about Guy will cast the entire novel in a new light -- one which doesn't reflect very favorably on our title character, but which helps answer the question of why these reflections of Edward Day were titled "confessions" in the first place.