Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star offers a raw, bleak, and very honest look into both anorexia and the inner workings of profoundly flawed relationships. Delivered with an outstanding economy of language and a blunt style that places emphasis on feelings as well as physical obsessions, this narrative possesses the ability to keep readers turning pages despite having plenty of uncomfortable passages and making it obvious early on that there will not be a big payout at the end.
Binary Star’s narrator is an unnamed science teacher in training whose life is torn between two demons: anorexia and her long-distance relationship with John, an alcoholic who needs sleeping pills. The woman, who is obsessed with her weight and keeps track of it the way doctors keep track of a deadly disease’s progression, recalls a trip she took with John the previous winter. The couple drove from John’s apartment in Chicago down the Pacific coast to visit friends. Then they traveled east across the South and skirted the Atlantic. While the trip could’ve been the perfect opportunity to work out their differences, it instead turns into a few awkward meetings and a never-ending loop of cynicism, pain, recrimination, and guilt. With her knowledge about space fresh in her memory, the young woman starts seeing the way the relationship resembles the destructive processes of a binary star system.
Gerard is more concerned with delivering devastating prose than with offering readers something to smile about. The result is a book packed with a nonchalant brutality that makes it memorable and helps it stand out among the rich and wonderfully diverse offerings currently making indie literature the place to be. For example, the narrator’s main fixation is perennially present, a presence that is both an element of cohesion and an all-consuming monster that haunts every page:
“Time is a matter of scale and balance.
Of keeping myself intact while shedding outer layers.
I turn circles before the mirror.
I urinate and return to the mirror.
I turn circles.
I try on everything in my closet before the mirror and hate it.”
On the surface, Binary Star is the story of a woman dealing with her sickness while trapped in an ugly relationship. However, her fascination with celebrities (“I stand at the counter. Christina Ricci. Nicole Richie. Portia de Rossi. Mary Kate and Ashely.”) and her preoccupation with the way the world sees her soon helps the novel become a statement about the correlation between celebrity/couture/beauty culture and mental health. Gerard’s strong, fast-paced style delivers passages that act like mirrors in which we see both our own self-destructive practices and cut to the marrow of society’s cult to vanity and unhealthily thin women.
Probably the best thing about Binary Star is that its strong social critique, while wrapped in a very personal story, is enough to turn it into a narrative that matters beyond its entertainment value. Without this element, the story would be just another narrative about rich, white, heterosexual folks stuck in a deeply flawed relationship. However, the author has enough writing chops, and sense, to make her narrator a relatable human whose psyche is not uniquely affected by the culture that surrounds here and who actually understands her weaknesses even while she fully embraces them. Furthermore, the novel is full of instances in which consumption is presented as the only constant, the only escape, the only reason to keep going. From coffee and cigarettes to magazines and pills, things are consumed in a frenzy that stands opposed to the lack of eating and shows that, when we’re feeling empty, there are plenty of placebos to help us feel like there’s something inside us.
Binary Star is a novel about the ways we hurt ourselves, but it’s also a story that takes magazines to task, shows the inner workings of a shattered relationship, and bravely explores and exposes the thought processes of a troubled mind consumed by the desire for what it understands as physical perfection. Between those themes and the way the author uses space to explain what is happening to the couple, what Gerard has created is a quick, brutal, and unflinchingly honest tale of death and consumption in contemporary America.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He is the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and Zero Saints (Broken River Books, forthcoming). His work has appeared in publications like Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Verbicide, The New York Times, Word Riot, Spinetingler Magazine, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, Out of the Gutter, and other print and online venues. You can keep up with him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.