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January 13, 2015

Book Notes - Sarah Gerard "Binary Star"

Binary Star

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sarah Gerard's Binary Star is one of the finest debuts I have read, a daring and epic novel of love and lost souls.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"'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."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Sarah Gerard's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Binary Star:

Like most of my generation, I used to make a lot of mix tapes. I have always enjoyed collage and consider a mix tape a kind of sound collage. There is also, of course, the need to collage the tape's packaging: its case and its song list, and the hidden places inside the case, behind the tape itself. The time spent preparing a mix tape followed by the time spent listening to it is, I think, much of what makes a mix tape special. This is also one of my favorite things about writing—the shared time of reader and writer.

Fiction, for me, is also collage. Binary Star collages together fictionalized events taking their departure from a certain period of my life, with astronomical passages and a lot of brand names, as well as some veganarchist political commentary. It is narrated by a young woman in her last semester of college who is struggling with anorexia and bulimia—a disorder marked by extreme highs and lows. I've attempted to capture the full range of emotion here, as well as the themes, the various tones, and even some plot. Thanks for listening.

"Done and Done", Gather
Gather was a vegan straight-edge hardcore band that put out only two albums and was fronted by a badass girl named Eva Genie. Her scream is fierce and so is the message: total liberation for all living things. I love this song for how short and devastating it is. This is also how I like to write fiction: spare language, no prevarication, no compromise.

"Outer Space", The Muffs
The Muffs are great because the catchiness of their pop punk melodies often conceals the real sadness of their songs, such as in this case: "You won't get a lot out of me / I really want you to see / that I'm wasting away in a fantasy / Do you know where I am? / I really want you to / I'm here in outer space." The application to Binary Star is obvious, so I won't dwell on it. I'll only say that by now, you might begin to suspect that I have a real soft spot for female vocalists as well as for female narrators, and you would be correct.

"Drug Test", Yo La Tengo
This is from an early Yo La Tengo album called New Wave Hot Dogs and is not one of their most popular tracks, which I think is a real shame. The use of "wasting away" in this song and in the last song resonate strongly in a restrictive eating disorder theme like Binary Star's, perhaps even more than in the usual context of drug abuse. I'm also a sucker for lyrics, so "brighter than nothing" and "I wish I was high" here have the value of astronomical pun for me—a lucky accident in one of my all-time favorite songs.

"These White Lights Will Bend to Make Blue", Azure Ray
Much of Binary Star takes place on a cross-country road trip the narrator and her boyfriend, John, take in an attempt to escape their problems—her anorexia and his alcoholism. They stop in a number of cheap motels like the one in this song, and at a motel in Charleston, John tells the narrator that her mother called his parents, concerned for her whereabouts. I like to imagine this song playing over that scene: the bending light, the new point of view, the meditative quality.

"Pretty Hurts", Beyonce
My husband and I debate which song is better, this one or Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful". I happen to love both, but there are certain things that I think make "Pretty Hurts" indispensable as a song about body image. First, Aguilera's song works well as a mantra, but Beyonce's is a hardcore social critique: "Perfection is a disease of a nation." My god! I get chills. Second, the driving beat functions as the heartbeat of the song, aurally reinforcing that the message is about the living body. It rises in tension and breaks loose into the chorus, jumping a full octave: a kind of catharsis. Bey lets loose her voice after opening the song somewhat tentatively and on the obedient note, "Mama said…" And then the song ends on this deceptively simple, but actually fantastically complex question: "Are you happy with yourself?" Perfect.

"You Tear the World in Two", Pale Saints
You may have guessed from the title that this book contains some binary relationships; some things (or characters) breaking into two and circling each other, or themselves. There is also, of course, the fact of the protagonist being divided within herself—the internal division, fighting impulses, of a person trapped inside an addiction. Binary Star is also largely about the destruction inherent in division, and the cyclical, destructive nature of addiction, as is this song: "You tear the world in two / I'll destroy you."

"I Wanted You to Feel the Same", The Radio Dept.
This songs contains one of the best lyrics about love ever written: "It breaks my heart to say that when I was in pain / I wanted you to feel the same." However dysfunctional, Binary Star is also a story about the pitfalls of young love and the pain of realizing we can hurt the people we love, and sometimes want to. There is the added benefit of there being an airplane in this song, as John is a long-distance boyfriend, and of this song appearing on an album called Pet Grief. But you'll have to read the book to get the latter.

"Third Planet", Modest Mouse
Does anyone in the universe not love this song? It's been with me since I was a teenager and it still makes me teary-eyed. But about "Third Planet" as it relates to Binary Star: this is a song about beginnings and endings; about circles and spheres—the circle of life and the sphere of the Earth, and the sphere of the universe; life on this planet, and the tactility of being alive. It's also about fucking up horribly and hurting the people you love, which is a part of being alive. The title suggests a third-person view of the Earth, as if seen from space—a real bonus.

"Little Girl Blue", Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin is the official singer of my soul. I imagine her singing this song to Binary Star's protagonist: "Sit right down / count your fingers / what else is there to do?" And the motherliness of calling her "little girl" is so comforting somehow. Someone else is taking over, giving instructions, being tender but firm. I haven't mentioned this yet, but it's come up a few times in this playlist: blue is an important color in Binary Star, as a star moving toward us appears blue; away, red.

"Nausea", X
Has any band ever been cooler than X? Has any woman ever been cooler than Exene Cervenka? The physical and existential applications of "nausea" are pretty pleasing here, and of course the "bloody red eyes to go sleep"—sleep is infrequent for Binary Star's narrator but all too easy for John, who can't seem to wake up in time for anything, and who even has a tendency to sleep in the wrong places. Cervenka's screech is so distinct, so horrifying, so powerful, so awesome. I want her to screech through the whole book, forever.

"Waiting for the Great Leap Forward", Billy Bragg
Driving through Texas, Binary Star's narrator takes out an iPhone and opens Spotify, and selects a Billy Bragg playlist. It's one of only a few that she and John can agree upon. Soon enough, they hear a commercial. I like to think that Billy Bragg would be mortified by the interruption of a commercial in his playlist. And so, I hereby make this song the Binary Star anthem. After all, "The revolution is only a t-shirt away."

Sarah Gerard and Binary Star links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Brooklyn Rail review
Los Angeles Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Bustle interview with the author
OTHERPPL interview with the author
Two Dollar Radio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)