Burning brightly / burning out: Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star

Binary StarBinary Star is a slim volume – a mere 172 pages – but it packs a wallop.

The plot: our anorexic narrator and her alcoholic boyfriend embark on roadtrip across America in search of better selves. Instead they stumble into Veganarchism – an unexpected direction, but one they are all too happy to throw themselves into.

On the surface, this books sounds like a recipe for playful and irreverent self-discovery. Opening the book reveals something else entirely – the feverishly flawed and all-consuming logic of an eating disorder.

Her diet consists mainly of Redbull and Hydroxycut; she rarely consumes solids, and is even less likely to keep them down. She makes excuse after excuse to anyone who tries to feed her. I’m vegan. I’m not hungry. I ate at home. I ate at school. I’m feeling nauseous. I have a thyroid condition. She surrounds herself with celebrity news, scavenging diet tips online. One of the most striking sections of the story is simply a list of gossip magazine headlines; others list celebrities, the names of diet pills – the mantras constantly on repeat in her head.

She and her alcoholic boyfriend set out on a trip across the country in an attempt to leave their problems behind them. Like a binary star system, their trajectories are connected – but they seem more likely to drag each other down than help each other heal. Veganarchism merely serves as a way to mask their problems; he keeps drinking, and she keeps starving. Their co-orbit remains destructive until the end.

Her thought processes have a weird, almost manic logic to them – a precarious and precise balance between what is consumed and what is burned away. It’s a poisonous way of thinking – unnatural and alienating. The narrative resists connection, because it’s difficult to meet the protagonist on her home turf. But the novel gets its strength from that difficulty; we want to take her by the shoulders and give her a good shake, somehow make her understand what she’s doing to herself. I found myself clenching my jaw while reading, because I wanted so badly for her to get well.

That’s precisely what makes this such an important narrative. Millions of people struggle with eating disorders every year, and it’s still something that very much flies under the radar. Binary Star opens the lid on that conversation – portraying an eating disorder from the inside in an intense and frightening way.

Further reading: Sarah Gerard has a wonderful Q and A with Binary Star publisher Two Dollar Radio, and an equally gut-punching essay about her own struggle with anorexia and anxiety in the The New York Times.

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