Staff Chat: Sarah Gerard’s BINARY STAR

Article by ben

The Chatters: Annalia Linnan (Bookseller) and Ben Rybeck (Events Coordinator)

The Book: BINARY STAR, Sarah Gerard’s debut novel

The Context: The newest title from Two Dollar Radio, the Columbus indie press whose recent releases include THE ABSOLUTION OF ROBERTO ACESTES LAING by Nicholas Rombes and ANCIENT OCEANS OF CENTRAL KENTUCKY by David Connerley Nahm

The Plot: Two young misfits take a roadtrip, throwing themselves upon a wasted American landscape. The narrator, a graduate student studying astronomy, struggles with bulimia. Her boyfriend and companion, John, drinks too much and takes pills. Brash, surreal, and experimental, BINARY STAR is a portrait of loneliness and codependency—of two people adrift in an onslaught of American culture.

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Annalia: The first part of this book devastated me.

Ben: With all the declarative, enigmatic statements? The narrator keeps telling the reader things like, “Tonight I want to stop time,” and, “I eat nothing but time,” and “I’m disgusting.”

Annalia: Yeah. It felt very personal—very present.

Ben: It’s interesting, because there’s really no “setting” in the first thirty pages—no “plot,” per se. We just know that the narrator and her boyfriend are orbiting near each other, and she’s telling the reader some pretty direct shit about her life—about her bulimia, her depression, her angst—even if it seems removed from time. How do you process that as a reader? Do you try to build some kind of a narrative out of it, or do you just take it as an onslaught?

Annalia: I mostly followed the emotional arc. That's always how it is for me. When you think about and remember things, it's always jumbled—always more about sensation than about coherent reality. The first part of BINARY STAR captures that. But now after reading the book, I feel like that first section is maybe just a broader picture of the rest of the novel—an overview, almost—and the other chapters fill in the details. In terms of form, I didn't know at first whether John would be a character that we get to see, and whether he would get to speak for himself or it would always be filtered through her brain, the I/you narrative. I think the strongest thing about the first section—and the whole novel, really—is illustrating how you can feel even more alone with another person than you do on your own sometimes.

Ben: I know what you mean. What I liked so much about the first thirty pages was the way the narrator seems to talk about, and address, a person [John] who never gets described, never gets to be heard, never appears in a conventional scene with dialogue and stuff—is basically never there. Although the narrator talks about another person, that person is, at first, an absence in the book.

Annalia: Exactly. Because he isn’t there, it allows the narrator to express all her contradictory feelings about him. She doesn’t have to commit to loving him or not. She can just blurt everything out, and I really connected with that: not knowing what you think and being generally bewildered, the idea of looking at a situation and not knowing what is the most broken thing or when it started breaking.

Ben: So why do we care about the characters? The book is taking the chance, I think, that the ugliness of the characters is inherently interesting. Or that the ideas that the characters have—about politics, about culture, about veganism—are inherently interesting. But some things remain vague.

Annalia: It felt purposeful to me.

Ben: Yeah, me too.

Annalia: After the first thirty pages, when the “plot” starts and the book gets more conventional—

Ben: You mean, there are scenes where characters actually, like, talk to each other and do things?

Annalia: [Laughs] Yeah...and they’re driving around the country...yet I never quite understood the purpose of their journey—nor do I think I was meant to.

Ben: But other things became very specific, like the way the narrator compulsively focuses on her body: “The tops of my thighs almost touch. My lower stomach extends past my hip bones. My upper arms look flabby. I can’t see my chest bones. My ass should have its own atmosphere.” It reads as this almost cubist deconstruction and exaggeration of the human form. There are also scenes in the grocery store, where the author will sometimes just list brand names for a page or so. It becomes surreal, with all these bizarre words, these brand names—Mrs. Buttersworth, Heinz, MorningStar, Rice-A-Roni, and so on—piling up. Very specific, and in its specificity, sort of nightmarish. On the other hand, the narrator calls her mother from time to time, and you never know what her mother is saying; you only get one side of the conversation.

Annalia: I thought some of those conversations might not have even been real, just things that the narrator wanted to say to her mom. Then again, that’s just another absence in the book that feels purposeful—part of the author’s larger vision. You also don’t know much about the narrator and John’s relationship—like, what things were like before the book begins—but I was fine with that. It felt reflective of the way somebody might live in a sort of heightened state: the present seems very specific, but the way you got there might feel a little hazy.

Ben: So what do John and the narrator see in each other? What is the nature of that relationship?

Annalia: I dunno. It’s a little hard to understand what their relationship is exactly. They say that they’re boyfriend and girlfriend, but they don’t behave that way, and they don’t seem to agree on anything, so I think all of that just complicates it. There’s maybe two or three scenes I remember where they actually have sex instead of just talking about it. One of those times is when they’re at that friend of her mom’s [somewhere they spend the night on their cross-country journey], and I think it was just something that happened because they were in this space completely removed from everything that they’re familiar with except each other. But the other sex scenes are so violent. I wasn’t sure what that meant about their relationship. But it made me uncomfortable.

Ben: What are the virtues of being uncomfortable when you read a book? This book or other books?

Annalia: It can be great! Whenever you pick up a novel, there are certain things you want to find, or expect to find, and when things don’t go according to plan, it just makes you question what you’re missing, and why that’s upsetting you. I guess we haven’t talked about the idea of the binary star itself—the details of astronomy and space that form the novel’s governing metaphor.

Ben: Sure, the author really isn’t shy about that stuff. But it makes sense as a detail of characterization. Of course the narrator would be thinking about astronomy; that’s what she’s studying, and therefore how she would make sense of the world around her. It helped build voice. And there’s a moment of it that I especially love: “When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was going to the moon. We weren’t thinking about looking back at Earth. But now that we’ve done it, that may as well have been the most important reason we went.” I love that moment. It seems to give some kind of perspective to the story, or to signal to some future where they would be looking back at the things that they had done. The book feels almost suffocatingly in the present tense, but I like that moment with the moon because it lets us see outside of their moment, you know?

Annalia: So you’d recommend this book then?

Ben: Yeah, totally. It’s challenging, but fascinating. You?

Annalia: Definitely—even if for no other reason than it’s just unlike anything else out there.

Ben: It kind of reminded me of Merrit Tierce's novel, LOVE ME BACK. In both of them, you have these narrators who are really forthcoming and seem to think a lot and feel a lot and are always up front about it. But by the end of the book, it seems like their “honesty” is as a mask for the fact that they really have very little interiority whatsoever. The voice of BINARY STAR in particular almost seems to mimic her bulimia to me, because it becomes so compulsive, the urge to just say things and be direct and be honest with the reader. At a certain point, it really did end up feeling like she’s not only emptying her body, but she’s also emptying her head. Does that make sense?

Annalia: Yeah. By the end, it feels like the narrator isn’t even a person anymore. She seems like a vessel for something else. I’m not sure what—the novel’s enigmatic that way—but by the end, I found myself thinking, “These are not your feelings. You’re not feeling these things anymore.”

Binary Star Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781937512255
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Two Dollar Radio - January 13th, 2015

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