Sarah Gerard’s debut novel Binary Star comes out today on Two Dollar Radio press, but it’s already been one of the most anticipated novels of 2015. She received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, Gawker named her novel among their favorite of female authors of 2015, and she’s earned a rave review in the Los Angeles Times.
Binary Star is the story of a 98-pound protagonist and her affluenza-suffering boyfriend as they drive the parameters of the country. They are locked in emotional co-dependence much like the stars the main character is obsessed with. They are caught in a destructive orbit. Her boyfriend, John, is an alcoholic and she is slowly withering away from anorexia. He is too much, she isn’t enough. He wants to forget, she wants to disappear. They feed on each other’s illness, growing as they diminish.
The book has the cool detachment of Joan Didion’s Play it As it Lays and the formal experimentation of Harry Matthews’ best work. The two main characters muse on politics, love, death, food and addiction as they ride what feels like a never ending loop until the novel’s explosive end.
I’m not sure what I expected from the author of such an intense work. We met on a freezing afternoon in Brooklyn at a festively decorated Mexican restaurant that seemed to mock the grey, subfreezing winds outside. It was just around the corner from the Bomb magazine office, where Sarah works. Bomb is a magazine of interviews between avant garde authors and artists. Sarah says she came to the visual arts at young age growing up in Florida after she stole a Nerve photo book from a bookstore in her local mall.
“I found all these great artists,” Gerard says. “It was eye opening.”
This is a common theme of young writers who grew up in the South. Finding a small bit of inspiration in a mall or chain bookstore, a diamond in the cultural rough. She began taking pictures and took vocal lessons and saw a life as an artist. But her youth was also a time when her addiction began to take hold.
It seems odd to call anorexia an addiction because it is an absence of overconsumption, but addiction is more than what goes in and out of our bodies. It’s about control.
“I don’t know why, but I started counting calories when I was 7,” she says. “I was a cheerleader and gymnast. I did ballet. I was a Girl Scout. I wanted to be the best.”
Gerard’s overachievement carried itself into a pathology by the time she reached college. “I was double majoring at the honors college as well as student teaching. There was a lot of Adderall then and I was up all hours.” She finally broke down and called her father and told him she hadn’t eaten for two weeks. “College is a time when you can shop for yourself. There’s drugs and alcohol. If something’s wrong it often manifests itself then.” She went to rehab and now sees a therapist.
“I bite my nails a lot now,” Gerard says. “My therapist is okay with that.”
Like Joan Didion, Gerard draws from life in her fiction. When she was 22 she took a cross country trip with her wealthy boyfriend like the protagonist in Binary Star, but she says time was rearranged and other things completely made up.
“We did sleep in a cow pasture and I got pink eye,” she says. “But we never played golf.”
“I don’t understand golf,” I say. “You have to practice so much for it to be fun.”
“It’s not the practice that bothers me,” she says. “It’s just — why golf?”
I tell Gerard her book reminded me of a similar cross country trip I took with an ex-girlfriend in college. We broke up about half way through and had to stick it out for the rest of the trip. We fought about things like the Free Tibet Movement and organic farming and campaign finance. Very unromantic, trivial things looking back on it. Being raised in middle class then going to college can fuck with your head. All that you’ve been told is good for you is suddenly bad. You’re unsure of the world and its promises. You want so badly to change things for the better but you realize that where you come from and what you represent is often part of the problem. You’re stuck in a circle of self hatred and distraction.
For Gerard, food represents all of the false promises of an idyllic suburban youth.
“When you’re young, food is a reward. Food is a comfort,” she says. “All these foods that I ate that I thought were wholesome were really poison.”
Gerard will embark on another cross country journey this spring for her book tour. 37 dates all over the country, Mexico and Canada. But unlike the trip she took when she was 22, things are much more stable for her now. She’s married and is managing her addiction.
As we leave the restaurant, I ask Gerard what made her want to write about stars as a metaphor for relationships.
“I read a lot about stars and thought what if I wrote about people that way,” she says. “The language of the stars lends itself to fiction.”
She pauses for a second, thinking.
“And stars are really cool,” she says and laughs.