Sarah Gerard's Binary Star is not a formally conventional novel, although it is an intensely realistic one. Conventional storytelling and realism are frequently conflated, as if the latter requires the former to manifest itself or the former naturally produces the latter. But neither is the case. Plot-driven fiction, to the extent it does indeed have "plot" (of the soft diagrammed by Gustav Freytag in his famous "Pyramid"), could actually be called a distortion of reality, as it falsely implies that life unfolds as a "story," complete with discernible beginnings (the exposition), middles (the rising action) and ends (the climax). "Realism" is arguably better served by a formal structure that minimizes plot, that in fact more closely achieves fidelity to real life by eliminating it altogether.
Gerard does not entirely eliminate plot in Binary Star. Things happen. The novel's twin protagonists, an anorexic woman and her alcoholic, sometimes violent boyfriend, embark on a road trip across the country, so that much of the novel takes the form of a picaresque journey, albeit one that seems headed to nowhere in particular. Even so, the narrative isn't always organized chronologically, as it moves freely into flashbacks depicting earlier episodes in the protagonists' troubled relationship, as well as the woman's experiences as a graduate student and a teacher. By the end of the novel the woman and the boyfriend, John, have apparently split, so there is some change from the circumstances obtaining at the beginning of the woman's story (she is herself the narrator), but on the other hand it certainly does not seem that the psychological or existential problems causing her anorexia have abated, as she tells us she is down to 85 pounds. "All that's left is a remnant," she declares.
This self-characterization is actually the final expression of the metaphor evoked in the novel's title and that is extended throughout the novel as a kind of structural conceit. The narrator and John are associated with binary stars:
A binary star is a system containing two stars that orbit their common center of mass.
Binary stars are gravitationally bound.
Gravity is the way we fall together.
The narrator is a graduate student in astronomy, so the facts we are offered about the nature of the binary star system reflect her own awareness that her relationship with John can be figuratively captured in this binary star metaphor, to which she returns so insistently that it becomes a conceit that really provides the novel with its primary formal strategy. While this might seem to bring an underlying "poetic" quality to the novel's aesthetic scheme, the device is employed so explicitly, with so little effort to conceal its pertinence to the novel's two main characters, that really it serves mainly as another way of exposing us to the narrator's perceived world, of making as realistic as possible what it's like to live in the world of the anorexic.
It does seem to me that depicting the narrator/protagonist's experience of the world as realistically--as close to the truth of the situation--as possible is the fundamental ambition of Binary Star. The novel's reluctance to impose a conventional plot on its main characters' experience, to offer us a familiar narrative of redemption, is one way of achieving its realism, but the style Gerard has her narrator employ also contributes to the overall impression we receive that we are being immersed in the narrator's reality. The prose is the very definition of spare and restrained, paragraphs are attenuated, often no more than a sentence or two. Many passages consist of extended dialogue, which is presented without quotation marks, as if observing this convention might require too much energy. Thus the narrator's account of her increasingly desperate condition mirrors that condition, reinforcing the story of her plight through the very way she tells the story.
Binary Star succeeds on its own terms, effectively depicting the circumstances in which someone with an eating disorder must struggle to cope with a situation she clearly can't control. If the characters are not especially memorable as characters (although the extremity of their situation is), they are believable, and that seems their primary purpose in the novel--to believably illustrate the damage done by eating disorders and addiction. This is a novel whose subject is its most important element, and all others--plot, character, point of view, style--are subordinate to it, valuable for bringing the subject to life, not for their own sake. The novel has aesthetic interest, but to read the novel for its aesthetic features is ultimately to miss the point.
None of this is problematic if you believe that the objective of a work of fiction is precisely to make us believe in its world (in this case, an approximation of the "real" world), so that we might share the perspective of one or more of its characters and in so doing "empathize" with that character. This is a common expectation of fiction, an expectation whose importance for some readers I do not discount. For me, however, it doesn't often enter into my reading experiences. There are some novels in which being lured into a character's perspective is a crucial part of the aesthetic effect, as in one using an unreliable narrator, for example. But I am generally drawn to fiction in which advancing literary art is a purpose sufficient unto itself, not a tool for producing empathy or identification. Binary Star is in many ways admirable, although more in the way of a good deed performed well than as a flash of artistic brilliance.
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