I heard a lot about this novel long before I sat down to finally read it. What surprised me more than anything else was that I hadn’t expected it to be in the “Alt-Lit” vein - a genre that I’m not actually all that thrilled with to be honest, having tested those waters with Tao Lin’s Taipei a couple of months ago. But unlike Lin’s novel, something actually happens here and the writing is much better too. I’m not sure if author Sarah Gerard is/was part of that literary scene or not but the sensibility and the style of the novel fits well within its parameters. Sparsely written, dysfunctional characters seemingly on an endless road to nowhere, boredom, directionless. No, these characters aren’t all that likable but there’s no rule saying that they have to be when it comes to fiction.
The story centers around an unnamed female narrator suffering from anorexia who is trying to navigate a long distance relationship with her alcoholic boyfriend. The narrator is at the beginning of her career as a teacher and her boyfriend, John, merely does what he wants because he’s living off his parent’s money. Out of the two, John seems like the least connected to anything - occasionally showing some feelings towards his girlfriend. Otherwise, he’s a pretty miserable, self-absorbed guy who’s only looking for his next drink. The theme of the binary star - two stars which share the same space and orbit around one another - is heavily pronounced, which echoes the relationship between the two as the narrator struggles to find her own space within this overly dependent relationship. The narrator struggles with weight and body image issues, which she reenforces through a steady diet of tabloid magazines which tout the latest diet fads or what society’s idea is of “the perfect female body” and its psychological effect that it has on many women in our culture. There is also a slight political component to the story, with both the narrator and her boyfriend “going vegan” and trying to start up a “revolution”. You know from the beginning that none of what is happening is going to end all that well and the end isn’t too much of a surprise, however it isn’t “the ending” that counts here. It’s the body of the work.
The prose style is more like poetry than fiction - a long prose poem. I liked the stripped down, experimental narrative throughout and there’s a lot being said without being said here. All the brand names and celebrities are name checked throughout, so are the prescription drugs that the two are addicted to, and the constant drumbeat of chain food institutions which crop up during the couple’s road trip only serves to reenforce both the illness angle as well as the political. It also paints a picture of sameness throughout the country, that no matter where they end up, it may as well have been the place they had just been. There is a feeling of hopelessness and desperation throughout, with only a glimmer of hope in sight, of which the narrator alone possesses.
I’m sure the author is going to go on to do some really interesting things in the future. There is a daring approach here, which is a breath of fresh air, setting the novel apart from much of the same tropes you usually find in literary fiction these days. Definitely worth a read.