JANUARY 22, 2015
IT’S NECESSARY TO COME close to hear what Sarah Gerard has to say, so softly and rapidly she speaks. But there’s urgency in her words, and despite the ambient din, she holds your attention like a magnet. Binary Star, her debut novel, is of the same voice.
The novel follows a young couple traveling through the United States in search of purpose and place. Instead they find repetitious consumerism and emptiness, the same cycle that traps the narrator in anorexia and in her relationship with John, who is trapped in his own illness, and one that’s mirrored by the fate of a consumptive star system. Written in sparse, poetic language, the story tells of powers beyond our control — and our complicity in making them so.
This conversation took place at the end of November, shortly before Gerard’s Binary Star book tour across America, which is set to follow a similar trajectory as her characters’ road trip.
WHITNEY CURRY WIMBISH: What are some of the societal conditions that contribute to the main characters’ illnesses?
SARAH GERARD: One of the things I tried to do in the book was represent how omnipresent brands are in our culture. As much as possible I went through each scene and tried to insert as many proper nouns as I could, so when they pass a Quiznos, and a Taco Bell, and a Subway, and the same strip mall, I made them all visible. It’s something that we become so accustomed to that the brands become subliminal. In fact, when I was studying education in college, we were taught that some of the first words a child learns are brand names, because they don’t have to sound them out. It becomes part of your environmental vocabulary. I wanted to give the feeling that the characters were bombarded, that they were overwhelmed by this.
They drove around the country looking for something that was really authentically American and they never found it. What they found to be authentic America was this constant flow of brand names. The first thing you find when you drive into a town is Waffle House. And then from there you just find more Waffle Houses. Where is America anymore? Is it Middle America in the soy fields? Is it Los Angeles in Hollywood? Is it Charleston at the Waffle House?
The repetitive aspect reminds me of the scene in which one character describes a group of mainstream people as being brainwashed. Is constant bombardment by brand names brainwashing?
I think so. And I think it becomes an OCD, too. I’ve said before that a person who is anorexic doesn’t not consume. They don’t consume certain things and they overconsume other things. The character in the novel is brainwashing herself and seems to be doing it with full knowledge. But she can’t stop.
When somebody is being brainwashed, their identity is removed through certain violent methodologies in order to replace it with a new one or with no identity at all. The narrator is doing the same thing when she’s up all night on the internet looking at pictures of anorexic bodies on Tumblr or goes to Walgreens and buys magazines and inhabits the lives of celebrities — imaginary people. She’s placing these images in front of herself all the time so she can fill herself with a new identity. She’s already lost her own through the torture of anorexia.
It’s almost like complicity with a societal mandate to be a good consumer.
I think about food packaging and how meticulously designed it is, down to the colors, down to the reds and yellows that will make somebody feel hungry, and how carefully selected the language is. Certain ingredients are hidden by the language that’s used to describe them: something is low fat, but high sugar. And the food itself is so designed that people become addicted to it — they won’t be able to stop eating it, and then they’ll immediately crave more when they’re finished. I think it drives people to become automatons and slaves to their body and slaves to the market.
Is there a way in this society to avoid that or is it inevitable?
I think it falls upon consumers to be careful about what they buy, how much they’re buying, and why. But it’s also the responsibility of companies to treat people like people, to place human life before capital. I think growing your own food is a great way to get around that. I dream of a life where I can have a yard and grow my own food. I’m doing my best to make that life now. Beginning with whole ingredients is important. And I think, actually, knowing about food groups is really important. I think getting rid of a scale is really important — not having a scale in your home unless you’re sick and need one.
Choosing not to participate in violent acts is also a way to get around it. In my life, I’ve chosen to be vegan as much as possible, and, because I have to be kind to myself and conscious of my own health, if I need to eat something, or if there’s no vegan food available, then I will. But eating vegan is a small way I can, on a daily basis, not participate in something that is violent in our culture. In a capitalist culture, you’re forced to act with your money.
That choice isn’t available to everyone. If you want to know how to keep yourself healthy, the information is out there and you can — if you have the money.
Do you feel that liberation or escape from the system is possible without self-destruction?
I don’t know if escape is possible. I’m not a political theorist. In my own life, what I’ve done is try very hard to find something that’s more important to me than self-destruction. My own struggles have changed significantly since I was anorexic. So if I had some advice, if there is any way to fight the system without destroying yourself, I would say, find some work to do that is fulfilling to you and doesn’t harm others, and make that the single most important thing in your life, and then feed yourself, whatever that means to you.
The book that I quote in the very beginning of the novel, the epigram, is from The Revolution of Everyday Life, by Raoul Vaneigem. He points to art-making and lovemaking as the two most radical acts that a person can engage in. There’s no way to be part of the system when you’re making art or love. […] When you’re actually making it, that’s the most radical thing you can do with your body. And I think it’s important for us to always bring it back to the body. What can the body do to not participate or what can the body do to fight back?
What did writing about large social problems in pared-down language and with a narrow point of view allow you to do that wouldn’t have been possible in a grand, sweeping “activist” novel?
My rule of thumb when I’m writing is to be as lean as possible regardless of what I’m writing. I thought, if I don’t have to go big, why go big? I’m not going to be able to keep it clean that way. And also because I felt that I didn’t have the authority to make big commentary like that. I don’t have a political background, I just have my feelings. I think my feelings are valid, and I wanted that to come across in the character, too. These are ugly feelings but they’re valid. And then I wanted to begin with the narrator’s perspective and her feelings and point to all of the causes. Where are the feelings coming from in her immediate world? I wasn’t setting out to write theoretical work, I was setting out to write a good story.
What initially attracted you to the image of a binary star?
I was writing about How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, and I was looking for some metaphor that could carry me through the essay. I began to read about black holes — in fact, the piece that I wrote [for BOMB, January 13, 2012] I ended up calling “How To Live Safely Inside a Black Hole.” And I wove in the story of bringing my husband, David, back to Florida for the first time to meet my family and how different a very familiar world can appear when you’re there with somebody new. I drew a comparison between that and crossing the event horizon and how the gravitational lensing shifts the appearance of everything at the event horizon. I found that fascinating.
Then I learned that a black hole is often an unseen binary companion. I thought, wow, that is such a beautiful image — you can have this invisible thing that pulls you against your will into an endlessly repeating cycle. The thing about the image of the binary star is that it’s such a powerful relationship that you can’t just use it anywhere. You can’t use it to symbolize a relationship that isn’t equally as powerful. Even a best friendship, unless it’s an exceptional best friendship, wouldn’t work. It appealed to me in the world of this story because I could compare it to the power of addiction; I could compare it to the power of young love. I could compare it to the power of political action and the magnetic appeal of different brands.
How did you research the topic so you could maintain the novel’s spare style yet still explain complex concepts to a layman reader?
I had to rewrite each of those passages over, and over, and over again. I was reading university websites, I was combing a lot of scientific journals. Wikipedia was a good friend. If I couldn’t grasp an idea in fifty words, I wouldn’t use it. I would say, this is obviously the wrong idea and I would look for a new one. I went down a lot of bunny trails looking for the right image for the right event. I just pared it way down and even left out a detail or two in certain places. They are novelistic passages and the point is that this one idea connects to the characters’ lives.
Was the research always in search of something that would support an image or did you come across anything that led to a scene you would not have otherwise written?
Absolutely. That’s how the common envelope section happened. A supernova can happen for a number of different reasons and that’s one of them. I thought, these two characters are in a common envelope. Where can I take this next? Well, what happens next in a common envelope? How does that come to destroy itself? And then I thought, well, how can that be analogous to the way a young addicted couple would destroy itself? Oh, it’s overflowing the separation between them. What would that mean? John’s political enthusiasm becomes that in the book.
I actually liked it when what I thought was the reason for their supernova came to be a story that was almost too obvious. I went looking for different reasons, and finding one, I had to change the story’s direction. I had to go back and rewrite the last couple passages. I liked when what I thought was happening became subverted by scientific evidence. At the end of the book there’s a passage about how we thought type 1a supernovae always explode at the same luminosity, and then a number of scientists came together and decided they actually explode at different luminosities, and you can’t use these as standard candles for measuring distance in the universe — I was like, oh, what we thought was happening isn’t happening at all. We’ve been misled. We wrongfully assumed.
Your body of work discusses how our society has misled us in a variety of ways and that idea has met with strong resistance from certain readers. I’m thinking of your essays in The New York Times and readers who made comments like “She’s young.” What do you make of that reaction?
I think what they’re saying is not that I’m young, but that I’m female. I know that they wouldn’t make the same comment on an article written by a man. If a man is a 29-year-old writer, he’s erudite, and if a woman is 29 and a writer, she hasn’t lived enough yet. She’s naive. Of course, there’s always a generational difference when you’re talking about politics and body image. But I would caution anyone against blaming someone’s body image issues on their age or their gender. I think it has much more to do with the society in which they’re raised. And I’m not only talking about Hollywood culture, I’m talking about the way we’re taught to eat or not taught to eat. When we’re talking about disordered eating, I think what we need to do is broaden our definition of what disordered eating is. Binging on Super Bowl Sunday is not healthy eating, either. There’s a lot more overeating happening in this country than starvation.
But getting back to the question, at what point does a person get to have an opinion? I’m not sorry that I’m a woman and can be loud. That kind of dismissive response can only come from a person who has lost his ideology and his sense of idealism. There’s no vision of an ideal world in that statement.
Is that kind of apathy the inevitable outcome of the societal illness you describe in Binary Star?
No, I don’t think it’s inevitable. A person can choose to fight back at any point.