Two Dollar Radio
tl;dr summary: Bulimic woman struggles with co-dependent relationship, astronomy, veganism.
Read this if you like: Experimental literary fiction
I can’t recall ever having seen eating disorders handled well in fiction. Partially, I think, because they’re so often associated with teenage girls, who are a tough character group to get right outside of a young adult novel. Like drug addiction, it’s also a hard topic to explore without veering into stereotype or melodrama.
The way Sarah Gerard handles this potentially problematic topic is by putting it into an experimental context. From a craft perspective, this is the most successful aspect of the novel. The narrative style feels perfectly suited to the protagonist’s voice, whose arc could be best described as a slow unraveling.
In exchange, some clarity is sacrificed. It can be tricky to figure out who is talking when, which lines are spoken and which are thought. This creates a controlled confusion. It felt intentional, and I believed the author was in command of her narrative the entire time, but I also don’t feel it was universally successful as a device for the entire length of the book, sometimes jarring me out of the reading experience. A device I did enjoy was the use of repetition. There are several passages that take the form of lists, each sentence in the list starting with “I want…” or “Tell yourself…” and cumulatively painting a picture of the moment.
The characters in this book are not especially compelling people. The protagonist’s thoughts are consumed by her eating disorder; she pays attention to little else. This makes her beyond unreliable because she’s not even all that interested in what’s going on outside her bubble. John, her boyfriend, is equally self-involved. Their relationship is obviously flawed from the very first scene. It’s interesting that she’s so intrigued by tabloids in the book, because that same emotion is what made me want to keep reading Binary Star, not a hope for redemption but more the compulsive staring at a train wreck.
There’s always something a bit dissatisfying for me about the downward spiral arc; your hopes can’t be dashed if they weren’t there in the first place, and this is essentially the author handcuffing herself, removing most of the viable sources of tension from her bag of tricks. The forward momentum in Binary Star is driven by the language. It’s rare for me to enjoy a book where I’m not invested in either the plot or the characters. But the narrative voice is so raw, in turns simple and lyrical, and the rhythm of the words pulled me in and kept me pushing forward. I especially enjoyed the astronomy metaphor that runs throughout the book. This is a character who has a difficulty with perception and scale, so it makes sense to the narrative that she would see her relationship with John as comparable to celestial events.
It feels not quite right to say I enjoyed reading Binary Star. A lot of it is painful, and sometimes the train wreck’s so gruesome you kind of want to look away, and the fact that Gerard could evoke that kind of reaction is testament to the high level of craft. The strength of the voice alone makes this one worth a read, even if you’re not typically into more experimental narratives.
I would be irresponsible to give that advice universally, however. This is a novel-length trigger for anyone recovering from an eating disorder, describing the feelings and acts with profound realism and accuracy. For some, it could be cathartic to see that someone else has been there and understands so thoroughly; for others, it may be best to steer clear.