Reading Binary Star, I’m struck by the fact that I should like Binary Star. It has, after all, what basically amounts to a trifecta of Cynthia draws: mental health issues, road trips through weird America, and the type of prose that critics will undoubtedly describe as “raw,” “spare and beautiful,” “luminous,” etc. I should like Binary Star; I wanted to like Binary Star, had it on my to-read list for years since I first saw it and its little recommendation plaque at 57th Street Books.
Reader, I didn’t.
Which is not to say, of course, that I hated Binary Star—hate is a strong and unequivocal word, and my emotions towards this book neither fit neither of these extremes. There were certain parts that I liked, yes, but there were also just huge swathes of the novel where I found myself dazzling indifferent.
A part of this, I suppose, has to do with a question of expectation. When you pitch a book as “an anorexic* and an alcoholic go on a roadtrip together; shit goes wrong,”** then you better expect I’ll have high expectations. The same way I’m a sucker for an interesting aesthetic (hello Bryan Fuller), psychological drama is kind of my calling card. Which means: I’ve read a fuckton of it. Which in turn means: I know this shit, and I know when it’s good.
Which is why, then, I feel relatively confident in saying Binary Star doesn’t add much to the genre. I mean, if you’re a youngish person with an eating disorder coming into this book, then maybe this book is going to be super-powerful and important—but as someone who’s consumed her fair share of media about addiction/depression/general brainweird and trauma, I couldn’t help but think of the numerous other books who had covered this topic and done it better. I don’t doubt Sarah Gerard’s sincerity or the genuineness of her pain, but this book reads like a MFA project: full of promise, but still not quite there.
A large part of this is the prose, which reads, as a friend once put it, like peak Tumblr poetry: full of lines that are individually Instagrammable and sentiments that are general enough to be universally relatable, but which don’t quite hit the specificity and vividness that makes poetry—good poetry, or at least my conception of it—stick. As a teenager, I read and reread Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, mouthing verses for the pure mouthfeel of the words. I cannot imagine doing the same with Binary Star. Gerard’s aiming for this very specific kind of poetic, almost novel-in-verse type prose, and while I generally enjoy that sort of thing (see: Ray Bradbury, Catherynne Valente, etc), this was not the case here.
Part of this (the part I find it easier to explain) is because the poetry is, for lack of a better term, kind of try-hard. Binary Star is full of Extended Metaphors (anorexics are like dying stars!) and Important Social Commentary (our culture is makes people sick!), and Gerard is very careful to make sure you don’t forget that. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, you get long passages like
“You don’t even know me.
You don’t even know me.
You don’t grow your own food.
You don’t grow anything but your gut.
I didn’t mean that. I’m tired.
Don’t be angry.
Don’t leave me. I’m alone.”
“7 Diet Tricks That Really Work. The 25 Best Diet Tricks of All Time. Retro Diet Tricks That Work. 8 No-Effort Diet Tricks. Strange Diet Tips and Tricks. Wicked Little Diet Tricks. Cosmo’s 5 Super-Simple Diet Tricks” (the actual passage is actually roughly ten times longer, but I figure this gets the point across)
And et cetera. Which is okay if it happens once or twice, but when large chunks of your writing are just these listicles, then yeah, I think you’ve made your point. Your metaphor’s outstayed its welcome, and your readers (me) are getting bored.
The second reason Gerard’s writing doesn’t work for me is because of how general the poetry bits are. Like I said before, Instagrammable, but not all that vivid. If I may get super lit major and pretentious for a moment (as if that isn’t my default state), there’s a point in “Art as Device” when Viktor Shklovsky says that the point of art is to make ordinary things new again—”make the stone stony” instead of letting it fade into the background. In non-critic speak, we’ve seen all this shit before; spice it up a little, okay? Give up names, give us details, make things pop.*** “I’m tired. I’m lonely. I’m hungry. I’m sorry.” I mean, yeah, these sentiments are relatable—that’s how people with mental illness, especially eating disorders, generally feel—but they’re also so damn universally relatable that I don’t get a sense of the actual particularities involved.
And that, I guess, gets to a larger issue with the book for me: it’s just too damn general. While we get plenty of details about John and the unnamed narrator (who is obviously Gerard)—she studies astronomy, he takes pills for bipolar, they’re vegans and make zines about it—I still can’t quite a handle on them as people. I mean, I know they’re both self-destructive, self-loathing twenty-somethings who make bad life choices, but that also describes like 90% of people with mental illness sans the twenty-something part. They’re accurate portraits of how mental illness works, and okay so severe mental illness can become consuming vis-à-vis identity, I get that, but I’m selfish. I want more. I want—well, I don’t think I quite want a Freudian, this-is-how-we-got-here flashback—but something, at least, that would help me get a better grasp on them as actual people. I don’t know. This is why, I think, I enjoyed the plottier parts of the book more—at least then we got the sense that there were actual people involved and not a string of archetypes floating around each other.
So yeah. Binary Star wasn’t a bad book, the way Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight (notice a pattern here?) are bad books, but it doesn’t particularly impress me either. If you want writers who do mental illness, I’d suggest Marya Hornbacher (Wasted, Madness), Joanne Greensburg (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden), David Foster Wallace (but of course). Neon Genesis Evangelion. Bojack Horseman. The Homestuck fanfiction Brainbent (but seriously, this shit is really, really good. Made me cry multiple times, would reread now even after my interest in Homestuck has evaporated good). Or, you know, you could go back to the basics: Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and John Berryman, all your old-school confessional poets and classic sad writers. There’s a world of good stuff out there. Go out and conquer it.
(A final note, one that is probably patently obvious but which still needs to be said, but this book is one that mentally ill people should approach with caution. Its meticulously detailed accounts of how much the narrator eats/drinks/exercises each day are the sort of stuff critics would describe as “raw” and “authentic,” and yeah, it’s pretty good at getting you into the mindset of a depressed anorexic. If you’re already had experience with that mindset though, this can be super triggering. Approach with caution.)
*Throughout Binary Star, the narrator displays behaviors of both bulimia and anorexia. This isn’t uncommon—there’s a huge amount of crossover between different strains of eating disorders—but for the sake of brevity and because restricting seems to be more her MO than binge-purging, I’m going to refer to the narrator as anorexic throughout.
**Incidentally, this is also the basic plot for the second part of one of my novels, so maybe that’s why I’m judging this book rather harshly?
***To her credit,**** one could argue that Gerard does give us more specificity at times—see the second quoted passage, the one with 5298 different diet tricks. Unfortunately, I’m just an incorrigible bitch that I’m still unimpressed (maybe because I had to read like a whole Kindle page detailing those 5298 diet tricks. I didn’t like listicles when fancy Oulipo writers like Perec did them, and I still don’t like them now.).
****Also, again to the book’s credit, at least it isn’t Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin, which I actually had to take a break from reading to read this book. Raphael de Valentin is a 19th-century fuckboi and I want to lovingly strangle him with his stupid expensive cravat.