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'Binary Star' Is A Hard, Harrowing Look Into Inner Space

In 2012 Sarah Gerard wrote a powerful essay for The New York Times about her experiences with bulimia, anorexia, and addiction. It's a harrowing read, but only half as much so as her debut novel, Binary Star. In it, Gerard's unnamed, semi-autobiographical protagonist takes a road trip with her boyfriend John. He's an alcoholic whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic; she's succumbing to an eating disorder that's wasting her away.

The trip is first an escape, then an odyssey, then an extended metaphor for a tragic metamorphosis. As Gerard's character struggles to shed pound after pound, she ponders scientific facts about various cosmic phenomenon — to the point where the weightlessness of space symbolizes something far more poignantly earthbound.

Binary Star is not a light read. It's told in swift, brutal strokes, all wound into dizzying loops of prose. The namelessness of the book's character is magnified each time she chants the names of the celebrities she wishes she looked like, from Lady Gaga to Paris Hilton. In her obsession with diet pills and thigh gaps, an underlying crisis emerges: Young and drifting, she's searching for identity.

She counts down her weight like NASA counts down a rocket launch, and her rapturous tangents into astrophysics — descriptions of dying stars, anecdotes about cosmonauts — add an unnerving dimension. Well under 200 pages, the book itself is slim. It seems like one more manifestation of Gerard's deep-soul probe, a tendency to see herself in every aspect of existence around her.

The book deals openly with narcissism, and its protagonist doesn't shy away from such harsh self-interpretation. With her "bulimia teeth" — ruined by gastric acid and malnutrition — she takes an almost perverse pride in her physical deterioration. As her relationship with John turns from rocky to surreal to sexually dysfunctional, her narrative voice becomes detached, even dislocated.

She's an observer of her own walking, breathing decay, which only makes her sporadic forays into the cold beauty of science feel more desperately chilling by contrast. A visit to a strip club in New Orleans brings her body-image issues into aching focus; her internal monologue is rhythmic, hallucinatory, yet vivid as crystal. Every time she tightens her belt, her sense of reality shrinks along with her waist.

Gerard walks a tightrope, and she rarely missteps. When she does, she errs on the side of trying too hard to make everything connect. Later in the book, her character becomes a vegan, and she and her boyfriend embark on a quixotic quest to become activists. The story strains itself trying to link a vegan's refusal to eat animal products with an anorexic's refusal to eat enough of anything; it's a worthy concept, but here it's done too casually, almost comically, to make an impact.

Binary Star also takes commercialism to task, particularly of the big-agriculture-and-pharmaceutical variety. The problem is, Gerard is just as apt to rely on hackneyed, page-filling litanies of brand names as she is to poetically explore what those things might signify. Similarly, the book's examination of mass media and body image stalls about halfway through, leaving one of the most promising elements of Gerard's character twisting in the wind.

"The total mass of a star is the principal determinant of its fate," Gerard writes early in Binary Star. The obviousness of this double entendre, and others, doesn't detract from the book's overall elegance and force. It's an activist novel, and while it doesn't always succeed on that level, Gerard is able to strike a careful balance between the real-world issue of eating disorders and sheer, emotional punch.

There are many threads at play in Binary Star, threads that don't mesh as resonantly as they could but still accentuate the messy rawness that elevates it far beyond a sad story told sadly. Hope even makes an appearance, or at least the last stage before hope becomes possible. Gerard has channeled her trials and tribulations into a work of heightened reality, one that sings to the lonely gravity of the human body.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Heller