When I was in college, I took a course titled “Alien Worlds.” The class was popular — at least the first few sessions were popular, when people still believed we’d be investigating extraterrestrial life — and it focused, mainly, on the techniques used to identify planets outside our solar system. I don’t remember much in the realm of practical information (I enrolled to fulfill a lab requirement), but I do remember the young professor, usually once a week, performing a hands-on presentation. In one instance, he selected several volunteers and, with a bed sheet and some balls, he showed us how planets and stars curve spacetime and cause gravity.
The unnamed, female narrator in Sarah Gerard’s remarkable debut novel, Binary Star, employs similar exercises. She attends Adelphi University on Long Island, and in addition to studying astronomy and secondary education, she interns at a local school, helping to teach about space. Tasked with “lead[ing] a lesson on common envelopes,” she tells her students to clear away the desks, cross hands with one another, and “start to spin.” Her students, as did my former classmates and I, become substitutes for cosmic forces and entities, and as they rotate, the narrator’s instructions transition into an internal monologue:
Make a list of every way you’re imperfect, I say.
Tell yourself that each item is correct.
Make a list of fears.
Tell yourself they’re present.
Partly novelistic, partly poetical, partly meditative, Binary Star is a beautiful inversion of these rudimentary, astronomical demonstrations, where bodies stand not as replacements for planets or asteroids or gravitational pulls, but where stars and black holes and galaxies stand, instead, for bodies.
Gerard’s narrator suffers from an eating disorder, and her mind operates with physics-like precision. She thinks always in numbers — “Everything must be quantified” — and her days are regimented in order to achieve a single digit: zero. She swallows. She vomits. She takes diet pills. She digests little other than coffee and Red Bull and dry lettuce from McDonald’s. She seeks perfection, and her purpose is “making [herself] a star.” She yearns to be a dying, big ball of gas — a glimmer in the sky — and as pretty and skinny as the celebrities whose alleged weight loss tips and pictures she studies on the pages of tabloids. She hopes to “shed matter.” Mass, gravity, light, revolutions, burning: The words of the body are the words of the stars, but Gerard takes no steps to separate them. Rather, she creates a terse ambiguity. Her writing has a lyrical duality, always hanging between the literal and the metaphorical, always in the present, “in personal time and universal time.” The protagonist is forever shifting between a human being and a “cosmic being.” She has no name. She exists in a “binary” system with another “star,” her equally troubled lover, orbiting a “common center of mass:” “John and I follow our paths into the center but we never reach the center. We are objects drawn to each other in space. We are space.” Co-dependent, they both revolve around one thing: a constant longing for purity.
Gerard finished Binary Star in about a month, residing in a trailer in Florida, and at less than 200 pages, it moves at a steady and quick velocity. Divided into three “dredge-ups,” the novel centers on the narrator and her self-medicating, drunk, and long-distance boyfriend, John, as they set-off on a cross-country road trip to find themselves. And though the road trip premise and star metaphors may seem like clichés, they succeed for that reason. Even on a structural level, the novel is a cliché, and the framework emphasizes its primary strength. Binary Star bluntly confronts topics, especially for women, not often discussed: “I want to have an affair that keeps me up at night;” “I want my vagina to get wet;” “I want to have my period.”
This is a bold work about taboos, but that isn’t to say Gerard limits herself to poetically subverting tropes. There’s very much a narrative. Before embarking on the drive, the narrator and John make a deal — neither seemingly with any intention of keeping it — to forgo their respective addictions: John won’t drink, and she won’t throw-up. When they arrive in Portland, and “visit a small zine distributor,” the owner rants for an hour about “animal liberation” and convinces John to buy a few items. Among the purchases, a book about “veganarchism” becomes a new focus for the couple, although it’s never enough to abate John’s alcoholism and her need to purge. John is the type of guy whose presence needs to be rationalized to others — he downs Seroquel and Dewar’s as much as he does strangers with his fists — and like the narrator, he is as hypocritical as he is idealistic.
Gerard, though, never attempts to justify her characters’ contradictions. John wears a leather belt, but he spends most of his time pompously declaring his veganism, as does the narrator, who begins working at Starbucks for the extra money. Looking at pictures taken in a vegan donut store in Seattle, she notices a Dunkin Donuts cup on one of the tables, nearly out of sight. America is riddled with these inconsistencies, and Gerard doesn’t try, either, to qualify her own. “From Hunger,” her non-fiction account of her bulimia and anorexia published in The New York Times, includes a similar incongruity. After returning to Florida and entering rehab, Gerard meets her cousin’s friend, and he proposes they hop freight trains heading north. “The stories sounded exciting, liberating, exactly what we needed,” Gerard writes, and soon, they board “an Amtrak train to Savannah,” the closest “hub for freight traffic.” They ride a major rail line to arrive at a train yard, where they can pretend to be existential hobos.
For Gerard, however, this subtle hypocrisy — people, including those most ethical, succumbing to corporations — isn’t wholly self-inflicted: While Binary Star’s narrator may appear to place the dying star metaphor on her disassociated self, Gerard brilliantly reveals how much the metaphor is actually imposed on her protagonist by capitalism. The body and the stars share a language, too, with corporate consumption, but Gerard hides the similarity within her luminous text, like a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup inside a vegan shop, waiting — on second glance — to be found. The main character stays in the “orbit of” her hunger’s “atmosphere,” and she also chews Orbit gum. She invokes multiple meanings of “lightness” — “Soon I will be light as gas,” and “I grow dimmer every day” — and she also smokes Ultra Light cigarettes. She wants to be a “star,” and she also reads Star Magazine. “Stop & Shop glows like a galaxy;” a stripper “in a silver thong and tassels turns in circles around a pole in the shape of a star;” the Walgreens bathroom with its “stainless steel walls” looks “like the inside of a spacecraft.” All “the lights of the cities looking like land-bound stars as [she and John] approach from a distance” shine fluorescently from The Cheesecake Factory, Fantastic Sams, and Chipotle. The times the products and buildings and objects of corporate America are equated to the cosmos are, really, times when the metaphorical language itself is in the process of collapsing. The moment the narrator explicitly sees herself as a commodity — “I [will] do away with all of my possessions, including myself” — is another hint to just how much she is “confusing terms.” A star consumes, she consumes, corporations consume: The prose becomes wonderfully cyclic, like the plot, and it’s unclear whether the universe, she, or society is the thing that’s sick.
It’s unclear which — the star, the person, or the economic system — is furthest along the path to destruction.