Review: Binary Star, by Sarah Gerard

41KICyiLGzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: January 2015

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

You haven’t eaten for hours. How are you awake? How can you drive?

I’m always awake. I’m always driving toward something.

Right now, I’m driving a line toward the void.

There is work to be done, but I won’t do it. I’ll circle my apartment elliptically burning calories from the kitchen to the bathroom.

I’ll eat a cup of grapes and purge, eat a cup of grapes and purge, eat and purge.

Fall into my hunger but never reach it.

Orbit its atmosphere.

Objects that fall into orbit around Earth can’t stay there forever. They must come down sometime.

These objects experience gravity but acceleration cancels gravity. Therefore, they are weightless.

They orbit for months or years, but without periodic bursts of energy, they start to slip.

Falling to Earth, burning up on the way down.

We never see them hit the ground.

***

Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star is a love story of mutually assured destruction. The nameless narrator, a young woman working as a student teacher studying astronomy, is in a troubling, long-distance relationship with a young man named John; he’s an alcoholic, she’s anorexic (bulimic, primarily).

As the novel begins, the two of them are on a road trip together. Their weaknesses are visible to one another—veritable beacons, to put it mildly—and so they promise to put themselves in check: for the duration of the trip, he won’t drink and she won’t purge. How long this truce of sorts lasts (or doesn’t) is indicative of the hard truth at the core of their relationship: they are their weaknesses; they have allowed their twinned self-destructive tendencies to affect each other—to devour each other.

What becomes clear very early on is that neither one of them wants to, or is willing to talk about their problems. Their weaknesses are crutches, and each is the other’s blockade—without them, they would be forced to actually be honest with one another. Gerard uses the metaphor of the binary star—of two stars destroying one another—to really drive this point home as, over time, the narrator’s obsession with achieving her goal weight of a deadly eighty-five pounds overwhelms her external influences and all possible outlets for support. And as the novella nears its conclusion, she turns increasingly inward, focused on just the one thing that matters—the thing that she believes, if achieved, will suddenly fill her with worth, or a fleeting sense of accomplishment.

While destruction is at the core of Binary Star, it is also a story of bargains—bargains made with a partner, with no intention of being fulfilled due to the bargains made with the self, which supersede all others. These self-made bargains take the form of never-ending one-sided conversations, wherein every piece of food is quantified, judged, and rationalized, with only the barest of necessities making it past one’s lips. The narrator survives, seemingly, on a diet of Adderall, Hydroxycut, and Red Bull; she clings to veganism (and later, veganarchism) as an ideal on which to suspend reason, to offer up as an explanation to anyone, friend or family, who questions the apparent changes to her body; she weighs herself five times a day, stands in front of a mirror, pees, and then looks in the mirror again, turning in profile, to see if in urinating, that unsightly, very human bulge around her midsection has suddenly vanished.

It’s in these details and so many others like them—these conversations and bargains and even occasional arguments with the self—that Binary Star succeeds. As someone who’s struggled with the constant presence of anorexia in my life for over fifteen years, Gerard’s truncated, bladed prose carves an emotional and very truthful swath over its unbelievably tight 166 pages. The narrator’s journey begins beautifully, with a section composed entirely of slightly abstracted poetic verse, before properly introducing readers to its two leads. It ends, however, with what seems like a dark parallel to the opening segment, as broken, nonsensical, somewhat paranoid abstraction—a reflection of a starved mind, a nutrient-skewed individual prone to erratic, dangerous behaviour. The evolution is stark and unflinching.

Several times this year I’ve come out citing my lack of love for narratives eschewing dialogue tags. Again, however, I’m forced to recognize the effectiveness of said tactic. The sense of distance created by the lack of quotation marks throughout helps to portray the narrator’s increasingly anxious, disordered mind. It becomes difficult at times to discern who is saying what, and which conversations are actually happening and which exist solely in her mind. In this way, the eating disorder itself becomes the novella’s unspoken third lead—it takes over, subjugates the narrator’s rational mind, and charts a new course all its own.

As the novella winds down and our narrator gets closer and closer to achieving her goal weight, and as her mind set devolves in tandem, she begins to see herself as shining, though it’s not light coming from within her but the light of the rest of the world passing through her as if she were translucent. She’s not a star; she’s collapsed, a black hole rapidly being swallowed by her own compulsions. I’m not entirely sure where her story ends, but I suspect that’s the point—in reaching her goal, she has in the process lost or destroyed, or aided in destroying, everything around her. To carry the metaphor a step further, her story concludes at the event horizon of the disorder. What’s on the other side remains a mystery.

This is a brutal read, one I related to far more than I anticipated. With a careful, attentive approach to the small quantifications, calculations, and justifications that, in my experience, make up so much of the anorexic experience, Gerard’s Binary Star is an intimate, much-needed window into a world I wish more people took the time to investigate and understand.

Review: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. The Travelling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they’d been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.

By then most people had settled somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three, and you can’t keep walking forever. After six months of travelling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop—the conductor’s orchestra had run into Gil’s company of Shakespearean actors, who had all escaped from Chicago together and then worked on a farm for a few years and had been on the road for three months, and they’d combined their operations.

Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, travelling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine. They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again. This territory was for the most part tranquil now. They encountered other travellers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns. The Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said. He himself found it difficult to live in the present. He’d played in a punk band in college and longed for the sound of an electric guitar.

***

One winter’s night, Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor performing King Lear on-stage in Toronto, dies of a heart attack mid-show. That same night, a plane from Moscow lands at Pearson carrying what can only be described as an entire cabin of patient zeros—men, women, and children all sick with a new, vicious, unbeatable strain of the swine flu known as the Georgia Flu. How deadly is it? Forty-eight hours—that’s how long before you die (oh, and you will die—the mortality rate of those affected by the Georgia Flu is 100 percent).

Present at Arthur’s final performance were Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparrazo now working as an EMT, who tried unsuccessfully to save the dying actor; and a young actress named Kirsten Raymonde whom Arthur had befriended in the days leading up to his death. By the time Jeevan arrives that night at his brother Frank’s apartment, following Arthur’s untimely demise, the Georgia Flu had already begun to spread, kicking off an apocalypse of sorts that would go on to (quickly) decimate the human race.

Picking up again twenty years after the collapse of western civilization, Kirsten is now part of a caravan known as the Travelling Symphony, equal parts an entertainment and survival troupe. They move from town to town, performing Shakespeare and other musical and performance-based selections for what remains of the population of North America. The members of the caravan are skilled hunters, reliant as much on their wits and their artistic abilities as their capacity to kill in order to survive.

Beyond the typical looting and anarchy that takes place in a world where borders between nations no longer exist, there are other problems the survivors of the Georgia Flu must contend with. Chief among them, for the purposes of this narrative, the Prophet—a mysterious young man who has managed to bend an entire town to his will. But the Prophet and Kirsten share an unlikely connection spawned, of all places, from one artist’s need to escape her reality—the world just prior to the collapse—through the creation of a comic book, the titular Station Eleven.

The narrative in Station Eleven trips across time—from months and years before the collapse, to zero hour and the years beyond. Using Arthur Leander’s death as a star around which the other characters orbit, the novel follows a wonderfully non-linear path, tracing several family histories at once, following their individual arcs and filling in the gaps along the way—showing how they’ve survived and in some cases thrived in the two decades since electricity, the Internet, and air travel went away, possibly for good.

At the end of several of these paths is the Museum of Civilization in Severn City—more accurately, in the Severn City airport, where many survivors hunkered down and rebuilt their lives following the events of that first night, when the world as they knew it ceased to be. The Museum of Civilization is a memorial for the past, housing odds and ends, trinkets and technologies devoid of purpose in the new world. Its existence brings to light questions not normally asked in similar apocalyptic narratives, like what happens to chemotherapy patients in a post-apocalyptic setting? Or people on antidepressants? On the airport tarmac, airplane tray tables have been erected as makeshift gravestones (bloody fantastic imagery). Residents of the Severn City airport reflect on the many ways they took their lives, and elements of their lives, for granted—their previous lack of patience, for example (typing “THX” instead of “Thanks” or “Thank you”).

In many ways, the Museum of Civilization is a reflection of the novel itself. Station Eleven presents a soft-spoken apocalypse, one that reads a little like a eulogy for a dead or dying world delivered to the reader as a travelogue. More often than not, the novel appears to take the road less travelled—there is violence, of course, and some of the more agreeable aspects of social conduct are jettisoned for an every-man-for-himself-style of lawlessness, which takes hold as small pocket societies form atop the remains of what came before. More than that, however, it’s a story of loneliness and silence. Of small realizations with dramatic outcomes, such as the knowledge that something so simple as stepping on a nail—a thing easily treated in the world prior to the collapse—will now almost certainly lead to a fatal infection.

Survival is clutch in Station Eleven, as one might expect, but survival isn’t always a 1:1 equation; it isn’t just about getting enough food to eat, or outfoxing potential marauders. It’s about reflecting on what was and finding ways to preserve pieces of art and culture, to carry ideas forward into… well, whatever comes next. This reflection is active within the narrative; the Travelling Symphony presents a melding of the two worlds—they’re a bridge between the artists of the past, and the survivalists and hunters of the future.

By using Arthur Leander’s death as the point around which all the narrative threads appear to rotate, author Emily St. John Mandel is afforded a multitude of opportunities to best explore this narrative of change: Arthur’s first wife, author and artist of the Station Eleven comic book; Clark, a friend of the deceased and the founder of the Museum of Civilization; the life of a social voyeur, as played in his early days by Jeevan the paparrazo; various actors, doctors, hunters, businessmen, and yes, even a self-styled prophet capitalizing on the end times.

Mandel’s vision of the future in Station Eleven is complete, from start to finish. Every thread, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, has weight and purpose to it, and is paid off through the narrative’s events. While treading on some very well worn ground, the novel manages to carve out a path all its own by focusing less on the survival aspects or the threats faced in an ungoverned, vastly depopulated world, and more on what was lost—scientifically, artistically, culturally—the night the Georgia Flu struck in earnest.

Despite the presence of death veining the narrative at every turn, Station Eleven remains unexpectedly beautiful and affirming throughout. This is apocalyptic lit done right—easily a single-sitting read. Highly recommended.

Review: After Birth, by Elisa Albert

61Koe5UF6BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: February 2015

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

Why couldn’t I just enjoy it? Why couldn’t I be calm and at peace and fulfilled and engorged and certain and calm? Why did lack of sleep make me feel like I was going to die? And why then couldn’t I simply hand the baby over to someone else and take a nap? And why, when he cried, when I had nursed and burped and hugged and kissed and changed and nursed and burped and changed again, when he kept crying, when the crying went on and he wouldn’t sleep and the days unwound sunrise to sunset, when I hadn’t eaten or changed clothes or bathed, when I had no one to talk to, no one to sit with, did I feel like putting him safely down in his crib and walking out into the park and sitting on a bench without my coat on until I died? Why so numb, so incapable, so enraged, so broken?

It’s in your blood, my mother said, and laughed.

Rest for a while, Paul would say.

No, there would be no rest for me. There was no rest to be had. There was no escaping the brutal enormity of it: I had had a baby. I had been cut in half for no good reason, and no number of dissolving stitches was ever going to make me whole again. The hysterical imperative was to Feed Him from Myself continuously, no compromise. I had to be vigilant. Omnipresent. I had fallen victim to a commonplace violence, and now I had this baby and there was too much at stake. I had failed him out of the gate. Deprived him the vital, epic journey through the birth canal, my poor doped-up kitten. Poor helpless boy.

***

A year ago, Ariella—Ari—gave birth by way of caesarean section to a beautiful baby boy named Walker. Ever since she’s been struggling to understand her new self, to come to terms with the ways in which her world, her reality, has been irrevocably altered.

Ari is not alone on this largely unguided journey, but her support base is limited. She and her husband Paul (fifteen years her senior—he an associate professor, she a grad student when they first met) share a home in Utrecht, New York. Paul is an all-around good guy; he loves his wife and new son and is eager to be the best parent he can be. Then there are Crisp and Jerry, a neighbourhood couple Ari relies upon for emotional support, especially immediately following Walker’s birth.

Beyond Paul, Crisp, and Jerry, however, Ari’s world is limited. Her mother died young from cancer, when Ari was in seventh grade, and her relationship with her father is not all that great. Additionally, while we meet many of Ari’s “friends” and acquaintances throughout, as she narrates in non-linear fashion her upbringing and adolescence, she is not one to regularly court, or for that matter maintain friendships. As a matter of fact, she’s openly hostile and mistrusting of most women.

Enter Mina Morris. Mina is a poet and former rock star—bassist for the late-’80s Oregon girl band the Misogynists. One of those bands that never made it beyond small clubs and dive bars yet managed somehow to cultivate a legacy of their very own amongst a small but intensely devoted fan base. At the novel’s outset, Mina is living in Crisp and Jerry’s house while they are away. She’s alone and about ready to burst with a child of her own.

But Mina isn’t just another woman. For Ari, Mina is something of a kindred spirit—someone in whom she sees her own personality (abrasive, quick to judge, even quicker to cut) reflected, even accentuated; with whom she can be vulnerable—to a degree. Ari tests the waters a bit and finds Mina at first cool and disinterested. It’s only after Mina gives birth that she begins to open up to Ari, and the two of them quickly bond over the surreality of their changed worlds and the lives now wholly dependent upon them.

In After Birth, author Elisa Albert employs form first and foremost as a function of emotion. Ari is, in the wake of childbirth, disconnected from the world around her. As her mind ricochets from one extreme to another, she simultaneously appears to embrace and detest motherhood. This fractured mindset is further illustrated by the ways in which the narrative leaps back and forth in time, revealing as necessary the origins of Ari via the lived experiences of both her mother (the “bitch from hell”) and her grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor with a litany of demons of her very own.

The extremes in which Ari vacillates are unsettling for the reader. We’re never comfortable, situated in one place, nor I suspect are we ever meant to be. Albert takes this a step further in the exploitation of italics in place of dialogue tags. This is something I’ve expressed having difficulty with in the past, feeling as if a lack of dialogue tags (quotation marks, specifically) hampers my ability to truly lose myself in a narrative. In many cases, I feel a lack of quotation marks removes some element of personality from a narrative, turning an otherwise engaging work of fiction into something that feels more academic or detached. This was my experience with After Birth, though I absolutely see the merits of said decision—because Ari is detached, removed from herself. Additionally, the use of italics to represent both emphasis and speech helps to blur the line between what’s real and what isn’t, which comes into play when Ari imagines the things her own mother would say to her, the ways in which she’d criticize and devalue her actions as a new mother as if she were still alive and in the room with Ari.

Still, the sense of detachment, as a reader, is present, and I found myself as a result never feeling as if I sympathized with Ari—not completely, and never as much as I wanted to. Another reason for this is the book’s tone. Albert is, to put it mildly, abrasive in her writing. Her characters are as quick as they are sharp; Ari is a verbal blade to the throat, with all manner of fucks at her disposal. Now, ordinarily I like this—Dahlia, titular star of Albert’s last novel The Book of Dahlia, is one of the more outwardly antagonistic protagonists I’ve come across, and I frigging adored her (and by the end, I practically wept for her). Ari’s tone seems at times quite similar to Dahlia’s—very similar, in fact—and just as disaffected (though their reasons are vastly different—Dahlia was dying from cancer). But where Dahlia felt like a singular creation, leaping fully formed from the page, Ari feels more like an echo—like a voice narrating from off the page rather than popping off it of her own volition. Again, while I feel this is deliberate, done in service to Ari’s journey and confusion as a new mother, it doesn’t change the fact that even by the end, with so much of her past and her family’s past laid bare, I was still unable to wrap myself around her as a three-dimensional character. Perhaps this speaks more to my own experiences—while I haven’t personally dealt with cancer, I can at least, to some tiny degree, imagine the ways in which a mind works to rationalize its changed existence and future; but giving birth, even raising a child, is something I can’t begin to fathom, let alone understand on a physical level.

The most “human” and accessible Ari appears is when she’s in the company of Mina. There’s a certain sense of idolatry in Ari’s view of Mina, as a woman so seemingly unafraid by what she’s experienced so far in life, or of what’s to come. Ari feeds off of this strength. And when late in the novel the parameters of their friendship change, Ari employs her well-trained defenses, pushing her plate away, so to speak, rather than allowing herself to cherish her last few bites of Mina.

Despite what I’m sure sounds like a lot of criticism, I still enjoyed reading After Birth. Albert is an incredibly sharp, economical writer, and this novel, interestingly enough, manages to be both fiercely personal, covering subject matter few would be so comfortable being so open about, yet strangely impersonal in form, in how it relays Ari’s experiences to the reader. But perhaps instead of trying to dissect this dichotomy further, it’s best I let Ari speak for herself:

Everyone’s so “worried” about me all the time. I haven’t really “bounced back,” as Sheryl says.

Sometimes I’m with the baby and I think: you’re my heart and my soul, and I would die for you.

Other times I think: tiny moron, leave me the fuck alone so I can slit my wrists in the bath and die in peace.