Somewhere between Jenny Erpenbeck and Tumblr blog post, Sarah Gerard’s debut novel Binary Star explores the furious inner-workings of an astronomy student and teacher plagued by an eating disorder.
Binary Star’s unnamed protagonist is one half of a symbiotic and often parasitic relationship with her boyfriend, John, who suffers from alcoholism. The two take a road trip with the promise that they won’t give in to their respective afflictions, that they will protect one another from themselves. They are objects caught in the larger orbit of addiction and capitalism; eventually they too must burn up, crashing to Earth.
Gerard’s prose is minimalistic and fast-paced; words spill from the page. Gerard rarely shows, opting instead for an OCD-style listing of existence, each moment captured, each detail accounted for, as though life is just a series of weights and measures. In one breathless paragraph, the narrator outlines what she eats and drinks during the day, a starved menagerie of caffeinated drinks, vegetable sticks and sugar-free gum. If that isn’t enough, the narrator confesses as if sinning, “I allow myself an apple after doing two sets of twenty sit-ups.”
It’s this duality that best defines the novel and its characters. Pleasure is paid for with pain. Calories going in must come out, usually regurgitated into rest stop toilets. A constant barrage of brand names and advertisements – a tactic that shows the insidious omnipresence of American capitalism – is juxtaposed against butte backdrops and open country. These lopsided binaries breathe life into what could otherwise be considered a novel of clichés. Gerard understands and manipulates these well-worn tropes, knowing full well that turning these clichés against themselves is how Binary Star retains its universality and retains a millennial freshness.
Gerard’s criticism of our consumer culture burns strong through the first two-thirds of the novel but peters off before the end, leaving one of the stronger aspects of the story behind in favor of an activist message that feels flat. The astronomy metaphors also tend to lean a bit heavy, making the central message of the novel feel slightly forced, the pieces not easily fitting together. But Binary Star’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It is auto-fiction as it ought to be, what Jonathan Sturgeon calls “the narratives we tell ourselves, and the stories we’re told, on the path between birth and death.”
Timothy O’Donnell was born in New Jersey, and has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from William Paterson University. His work has appeared in Four Chambers, Winter Tangerine, 3:AM Magazine, Pif Magazine & Paper Darts, among others.