I think about what time might taste like after reading Sarah Gerard’s debut novel, Binary Star. The kind of time you eat is stale, liquid food. It has a past and a future and will feel too large to consume, but a single portion of time is actually quite small. In this way, time is a clever package.
In Gerard’s novel, the narrator, a young woman battling with an eating disorder, embarks on a road trip with her long-distance boyfriend, John. John struggles with alcoholism. The couple makes a pact – while they’re away, the unnamed narrator cannot purge; John cannot drink. “We’ll shed our lives in order to see ourselves clearly.” Binary Star poses questions. One of them: How much of ourselves can we control? Another: What does help look like?
The narrator is an astronomy teacher. We learn about the lives of stars; their phases are defined. At some point, the students are told to take notes and I, among them, do it. This story is told as an evolution – of a star, of an unstable relationship, of afflicted individuals. The couple gets in John’s car and drives along the perimeter of the United States. They are in orbit. They are held together, both in motion and in place, by gravity. This might sound like a heavy-handed metaphor, but it isn’t. The relationship Gerard draws between her characters and a star is natural. Her language verges on metonymy. Something strange happens with a passage such as the following:
A white dwarf depends only on density. A white dwarf isn’t burning.
It isn’t doing anything productive.
It doesn’t matter that I’m not burning anymore. I haven’t burned for a long time. I approach my natural state of being. Cold is my natural state of being.
I grow dimmer every day.
There is no difference or similarity between the narrator and the white dwarf star. They are each other. Gerard defines a thing, then follows with an example. She takes two ideas and makes them inhabit each other. It is a brilliant act for this character’s particular story. There is an odd effect of mental illness: it can feel like the line between your life and illness has been erased. Or like the line never existed.
Gerard’s sentences are sparse and short, lyrical without trying. You can take them in easily. The novel is made up of space and time as much as it is of words. The narrator, always awake; John, always asleep. Their days are uncontained. Time is marked by the place the characters occupy.
The white space on the page is a sort of suspending vehicle. Gerard writes:
I pretend to like Tabasco because it burns.
I need to burn.
For the majority of the novel, sentences stand alone. A sentence is a whole paragraph. I am seeing the words as much as I am reading them. I stop in the space to take them in. The experience of reading is dynamic. I have to pause; I have to keep going. I am in the narrator’s stream of consciousness and I don’t want to get out:
I want to look at the sky and understand.
I want to feel small.
There are sections of dialogue where I don’t know whether it is the narrator or John talking, and I understand it doesn’t matter. Or rather that it does matter. In the opening, the narrator says: “I help John become me. It is the cruelest thing I do.” How do you help the person you love when you yourself need help?
Gerard’s characters are aware they need help. There is no denial. There are lies to keep the sickness alive. For them, help is like trying to live against your will.
In one scene, they make a friend on the road and hit golf balls together on a course. The narrator says: “He [John] didn’t want to come; he thinks he’s doing it for me, but I know we’re doing this for him.”
In another scene, the couple goes out to The Cheesecake Factory to celebrate the narrator’s birthday. The narrator has taken too many laxatives before the meal. As she is in the bathroom she says:
My legs are weak. My heart is pounding.
I vomit and feel better for having done it.
John, help me.
I try to stand and collapse.
I spend the rest of the meal drinking water. By the time we leave, John is talking in his sleep at the table. This is how he wins every time.
If they can’t help each other or themselves, there is veganarchism. There is a revolution to start on behalf of defenseless animals, animals that require liberation from their cages, from abuse, from their expedited deaths. Here is the metaphor. The metaphor, though, is not for the pleasure of the reader. The desired liberation is for her – the narrator – and you want her to have it, even though it’s not entirely clear what that liberation would mean. Liberation is an escape from one thing as much as it is an advance toward another. There is movement in liberation – we can get closer to escaping ourselves if we know where we want to go.
The narrator oscillates between self-control and powerlessness. She is manipulative and being manipulated by her own mind, by a culture obsessed with appearances and quick fixes. In her and John, we see two people who need each other. We learn that how two people need each other isn’t up to anybody, not even them. Between them is a force unseen:
Gravity is how we fall together.
If you’re able to love, you can tell me what it means.
The way space-time curves around it:
Love is a black hole.
Undetectable except by the way it affects other bodies.
Near the end of the novel, the narrator spends almost sixteen hours in the library. She describes having eaten apples, celery, almonds, and time. Time is what I’m left thinking about hours after finishing the book. The small space of the present. This is where the prose of Binary Star lives. It is a clever package. The language moves through darkness and lightness, between being and unbeing, between past and future. But its center is always in the present. It is the only space where you can exist and disappear at the same time. Gerard leaves you there:
Someday I’ll be a perfect black body. I’ll be perfectly smooth and white. I’ll be obliterated.
Dark matter. Antimatter. Unseen, unfelt, unmatter. I unbind myself.
I don’t matter. I am matter. I matter. I’m in the mirror.
Marisela Navarro is a writer in Boston. She has published short fiction in SmokeLong Quarterly, the anthology Flash Fiction Funny, Wigleaf, 100 Word Story, and Matchbook. She is in the MFA program at Emerson College.