I nearly put down Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star after only a few pages. “We know each other’s sickness”; “I empty myself”; the prose is full of clichés, sentences seemingly ripped from the pop psychology of eating disorders and codependent relationships. The debut novel follows such a relationship, from the point of view of an anorexic young woman: the tale of two pathologically self-destructive lovers, our unnamed narrator and her alcoholic boyfriend John. They go on an extended road-trip, attempting to heal each other and save their delicate romance. It all sounds like a book you’ve read a million times before, or a movie you’ve already seen. But the further you read, the clearer it becomes that Gerard knows this even better than you do, and that she isn’t thoughtlessly recycling worn-out language. Her repetition and deployment of clichés couldn’t be more purposeful.
It all comes together in the high-concept cliché of Gerard’s central metaphor: the titular binary star, which she describes in the italicized overture to the book as “a system containing two stars that orbit their common center of mass” and “are gravitationally bound.” In art, invoking astronomy or physics has become a reliable means of lending weight to interpersonal relationships — last year, Jenny Offill used Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record project as a window into infidelity in her novel Dept. of Speculation, while the often-separated vampire couple in Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive treasured Einstein’s theory of “spooky action at a distance.” For the narrator, the binary star symbolizes the intertwined doom of codependency, and the twinned thrills of self-purification and self-destruction.
But Gerard is far subtler than her characters — even if her protagonist’s story bears a great deal of resemblance to her own — and she hides quite a bit more significance than that in her cosmic metaphor, which also gains depth and even an element of surprise as the book progresses. Premised on the juxtaposition of something very small (a deteriorating romance between two utterly isolated human beings) and something unfathomably large (a dying star system), Binary Star sacrifices life-size storytelling to cliché in order to make meaning on both micro and macro levels. The novel’s storylines are primarily vehicles for tiny bursts of clarity and connections so far-reaching that they’re impossible to untangle into discrete realizations.
On the micro level, there are efficiently articulated and highly specific moments that resonate on almost every page. At one point during the road-trip, the narrator laments,
We find nothing authentic in the tour books, so we abandon them. They don’t tell us where the real cities are. We look online and find the same information. We don’t know what we’re doing.
Through a character we’ve seen before, on a quest we’ve also seen before, Gerard conveys a universal (to a certain kind of traveler, at least) yet rarely documented experience. At the level of thoughts and images and sentences — the latter of which are uniformly short and simple, in abbreviated paragraphs that make each page read like something between a poem and a list — she simultaneously captures the freezing isolation of her narrator’s life and throws into relief what is universal about her story.
Binary Star performs even greater feats on a macro scale. It’s remarkable, the connections familiar characters and plots allow Gerard to create, as she brings elements of the outside world into the laboratory of the narrator and her boyfriend’s icily insulated existence. The commonness of their story makes it the perfect stage for big ideas; Binary Star says as much about the desolate American landscape that surrounds these characters as it does about their own sickness.
Our protagonist is both teaching and learning about astronomy; this not only situates Binary Star‘s central metaphor, but also places her in an odd space between responsible adulthood and childlike dependence that mimics her relationship to John and to her distant mother. Though she’s attracted to politically radical ideas, the tabloid headlines and brand names (of energy drinks and diet pills, mostly) that she repeats to herself like incantations betray how deeply she is captivated by media, advertising, and celebrity culture. More importantly, they — along with her late-night Internet binges — explain why we’ve read so many of this character’s thoughts about anorexia before: because she has, too.
Veganism enters the book as one of many excuses not to eat, but in John’s hands it explodes into a delusional, pseudo-anarchist animal liberation plot. Their increasingly violent sexual encounters draw out the alternately vehement and ashamed masochism of eating disorders, and the way alcoholism can transform a person into an ambivalent — or just plain inadvertent — sadist. The narrator begins to feel, physically, the pain of the animals John schemes impotently to save. It becomes impossible to tell whether the couple are distorting and abusing everything that crosses their path, or if external forces and ideological coping mechanisms are what’s been killing them all along. The answer seems to be a bit of both.
It’s the convergence of all these personal and political and sexual and professional crises, not the story’s intentionally foggy ending, that is the book’s true climax. Gerard’s style is cold, precise, intellectual, scientific — yet there is an urgency to its bleakness that makes us care about the archetypes she’s invoked. And when I say “makes us care,” I don’t just mean that the book convinces us; it forces us to feel the weight of all they represent, viscerally. Because for all of its layered meaning, Binary Star is still very much a novel. Its final binary is that it works on an emotional level as well as a philosophical one. Its triumph, and its uniqueness, is in bringing us to tears over a great mess of intertwined ideas.