ABOVE: SARAH GERARD. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSH WOOL
At the moment, Sarah Gerard’s life is rife with celestial metaphor. Her much anticipated debut novel, Binary Star, was released by Two Dollar Radio last week to energetic praise. Even The Millions couldn’t help milking the metaphor: “Sarah Gerard’s star is rising.”
Binary Star follows two characters, an anorexic young woman obsessed with celebrity magazines, Red Bull, and Hydroxycut, and her alcoholic boyfriend, who, like binary stars, circle each other but can never quite make contact. They hurtle through the world like a star hurtles through the solar system, their energy dangerous and ready to ignite in one luminous burst. Fast-paced, visceral, and distinctly tragic, Binary Star is a must read for anyone curious about what it means to be a body in space.
RACHEL HURN: There’s a lot of violence in your book, whether it’s the narrator’s violence against her own body, or if it’s the ending of the novel, which I won’t talk about specifically, but the ending is very violent and radical. I was wondering about your thoughts on the violence that surrounds Binary Star?
SARAH GERARD: There’s a scene where the narrator and her boyfriend watch a documentary about the Earth Liberation Front setting fire to a logging station, and the question comes up about how to define violence and whether property destruction is considered violence. In fact, the same question came up surrounding the Ferguson protests and riots. The question is, why do we in this racial context value property over human life? Or why, when nobody is actually injured, do we condemn this reaction, which is actually just a stand against the systemic violence of capitalism? It’s a theme that runs through the book. We have this top-down violence in the way we consume food and images of celebrity bodies and other forms of systemic or top-down violence, and then we have the violence between the narrator and her boyfriend in the form of their sex life. The only way that he can get off is by tying her up, or through this fantasy of domination. It’s only later on in the book when they work together to bring her to orgasm that she actually can orgasm—where he’s much gentler. Where he doesn’t have this fantasy or force.
HURN: How do you think as a character he got to the place where he could set aside his need for domination?
GERARD: I think in a relationship those things can happen accidentally. You try communicating with each other in a variety of ways to see what works, and you form new habits. I don’t think it actually worked for them in the end.
HURN: Speaking of violence against property and institutions, you wrote about that before for The New York Times, correct? Remind me what it was called?
GERARD: It’s called “Earthlings, Anarchists, and Other Animals.” That was also an Earth Liberation Front action, but they set fire to a housing development. It was, at the time, the most expensive case of domestic sabotage in US history. It was to protest a new development that was encroaching on nearby forests. But nobody was injured.
HURN: Your book also talks about the history of releasing animals from labs.
GERARD: Yes, they’re similar. The ELF and the ALF—the Animals Liberation Front—are similar. They’re insurrectionary groups, but they’re decentralized so the cells operated independently. And there was no governing body. The ALF came first, and they targeting laboratories, slaughterhouses, and they would release animals. Or just stop operations somehow.
HURN: Do you ever think about participating in these protests?
GERARD: Sometimes I fantasize about it, but I don’t know what’s best. I’m not sure what would actually work. I think I would be a very good member of an organization like that, but I would not be a very good leader of an organization like that, because I feel ethically caught between doing one thing and another. I spend a lot of time considering.
HURN: It would be hard to make a decision.
GERARD: Yeah, I’m not a very action-oriented person, unless it has to do with writing.
HURN: Do you consider writing to be passive?
GERARD: I think speaking out has a lot of value.
HURN: Definitely. I was going to say you basically are a member of those organizations by bringing them to the light, or discussing the issues they’re concerned about in your own work.
GERARD: Yes. Sometimes I fantasize about burning things down though.
HURN: [laughs] So do I! Actually, breaking things. I think about breaking things a lot.
GERARD: Just the sound of a window shattering.
HURN: Oh my god, yes.
GERARD: It’s so satisfying.
HURN: When I first moved to New York, I had fantasies of taking a big-ass rock in my hand and just throwing it through a huge piece of glass. This was probably for a lot of reasons, but I also think it was the energy of the city that I was not used to. It was overwhelming. Pressure, not enough time to yourself and to think your own thoughts.
GERARD: I think the sound of a window shattering also represents the beginning of disruption of the status quo. It never ends with the window shattering, it always incites a riot. I think that’s part of the fantasy for me.
HURN: Yeah, it’s like we need to stop this cycle that we’re on so something drastic has to be done to stop it. Anorexia is a major topic in your novel. When we’re talking about breaking glass signifying the start of a different order, a new system coming and breaking what came before it, this idea made me think of your experience. Other than going to rehab or going to therapy, it seems so hard to bring about a new order of health and nonviolence to one’s body when they’re addicted to this system of anorexia. Was there a moment for you where the glass was shattered?
GERARD: Yeah, it was my face. It was my face that was shattered in a train accident. But actually, it didn’t happen immediately. When the glass shatters, everything isn’t automatically different. Everything has to—
HURN: You have to clean up the glass.
GERARD: Exactly. And the riot afterward, or the process of cleaning up the glass, for me was the couple of years that I spent healing from that accident. I had to get a tooth replaced, and I had to go through several rounds of oral surgery, and my oral surgeon said if I was throwing up my food he wasn’t going to perform the surgery. There was a lot of damage to my upper jaw, and he would have to rebuild the bone and the gum, and he had to do this implant, which was very painful. It took over a year and several rounds of surgery to do that. Recovery is a long, complicated process, and sometimes I’m surprised to find that certain things are still difficult for me. In my everyday life sometimes certain foods seem unappetizing. Or a certain bad experience will make me think, “Maybe this person would react differently to me if I were skinnier.” A sick thought. But I think the train accident was the moment when I realized this fantasy is never going to be a reality for me now because this scar is never going to go away. Now the possibility of perfection has been literally taken away from me. Not that it was every achievable, but it made it very visible. And the process of recovery has been learning to be comfortable with imperfection, learning to love imperfection. Or even just doing away with the idea that perfection is even a reality for anyone.
HURN: I think that’s also something we go through coming of age. The crushing realization of getting older and that bad things can happen—I’m not invincible, my body’s not invincible. I used to think it would be the worst thing on earth if I couldn’t run as much as I wanted to, or be as athletic as I wanted to be. If anything, for me, going through injury has given me a healthier relationship with my body, where I see that I was pushing for perfection. And now I think, actually, no, perfection is impossible for everybody. It’s much more freeing.
GERARD: Well, yeah, and it’s also like, perfection for how long? Our bodies are all going to break down and die. I mean, how long do you need to be perfect to be happy? What even gave us the idea that perfection is happiness anyway? One of the things that I realized when I was really thin and really sick is that in order to maintain that thinness, which I was never happy with in the first place, I reached a point where I was consistently miserable. I was sick, I was tired, I was hungry all the time. Nobody liked me anymore. I was in a really unhappy relationship with someone else who was also sick. None of my friends approved of my lifestyle, so I alienated all of my friends. I was just alone and hungry and tired and nervous all of the time. And I was still not thin enough, and even if I had reached my goal weight, whatever it was that day, how long would I stay there and what would I have to do to keep it? So perfection never equals happiness. And even if you were happy at a certain weight for however long, it would be temporary because our bodies aren’t made to stay the same all of the time.
HURN: Then the moment you weren’t perfect anymore, then what? Your world just shatters and falls apart? It’s an extremely shallow outlook on life.
GERARD: It’s delusional.
HURN: You’re working on another book that’s related to all of this, right?
GERARD: Well, I’ve been reading a lot about animals because animals also get eating disorders. Interesting, right?
HURN: Like what?
GERARD: For instance, if you breed a pig to be very thinner sometimes it just stops eating all together. And then other pigs will sort of pick up on it and stop eating too. Also certain primates stop eating for certain periods of time when they feel shunned by their groups, which is a social reaction. If they’re shamed for a behavior that’s outside of the standards of their group, their group will ostracize them, and they will stop eating for like six days. But I’ve also been interviewing people about their struggles with eating of any kind—I include crash dieting and overeating. I thought I was writing a proposal for a book length work, but now I think it’s going to be a proposal for an essay collection.
BINARY STAR IS OUT NOW VIA TWO DOLLAR RADIO.