Stars are most beautiful in their death throes, hurling light and color into space. Sarah Gerard considers this doomed beauty from every angle in her haunting debut novella, "Binary Star."
"I am a white dwarf," her protagonist says. Not only is she dying — physically and emotionally — but she is caught in a dysfunctional orbit with her boyfriend, John, that keeps her alive.
Gerard's story centers on an anorexic, damaged woman; she fills herself with only diet pills and caffeine. "I eat nothing but time," she tells us. Like a dying star, there is no energy created within her. She uses chemicals to keep her body moving.
"Binary Star" is imparted through the terse, arresting observations of its main character. Gerard synthesizes astrophysical jargon with a sense of longing:
"Most things are things I shouldn't eat.
I pretend to like Tabasco because it burns.
I need to burn.
I am very scientific, or at least methodical.
Everything must be quantified."
Her meditations on her own form are framed by a tabloid magazine fixation and her study of astronomy. She is a body, bound by gravity and subject only to the pull of other bodies:
"A white dwarf no longer uses fusion.
It is held together by degeneracy pressure.
This is the only thing supporting it against collapse.
This is also the only thing that keeps it from exploding."
Gerard tells a story that encircles the two damaged lovers by looping repeatedly into their obsessive interactions. Yet these lovers are a binary system; they need each other. "Desire requires two bodies," she says. "This and that."
The lovers are bound by obligation and pattern rather than emotional connection. "Binary Star" takes us through many events in their relationship: a road trip, the back and forth of their long-distance struggles, spikes of anger and lulls of neglect. Her highs are too high and his lows are painfully low. Gerard artfully blurs each event into the next, echoing the protagonist's anxiety-ridden confusion as she circles her boyfriend and tries to hold herself together.
This is a story of collapse, and in each of the three phases of the novel, Gerard's dying star glows with pain. Each night, she says, "I find the center of my hunger in the center of the floor, in the center of the room. The walls breathe the space between them and I am the space, condensed and expanded and condensed. I pulse. I've burned myself to cinders." Her awareness that she is a tragic body only adds to her alluring complication.
"Binary Star" eschews notions of linear storytelling in favor of the cyclical. Time is irrelevant, past and present are fused. The novella's strength is in its precise rendering of decaying bodies — both heavenly and corporeal — while maintaining a sense of ever-present longing. Gerard captures the beauty and scientific irony of damaged relationships and ephemeral heavenly lights. Just as with the stars, it is collapse that offers the most illumination.
Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.