I found my way to Binary Star, the debut novel of Sarah Gerard, through the author’s recent critical work on Hilda Hilst. Publishing an essay on Hilst in the Los Angeles Review of Books and taking the lead on a roundtable discussion in Music and Literature, Gerard caught my eye as someone prepared to venture out to provocative, challenging places in the pages of her own fiction. The subject matter of Binary Star only confirmed this impression. Based closely on the author’s experiences with a severe eating disorder, the novel introduces a young bulimic woman and charts the dissolution of her disastrous romance with an abusive boyfriend. It begins with a road trip devoid of any sense of direction and destination, then it swerves into drug and alcohol addiction, sadomasochism, and the ethics of doing violence to creatures of flesh and blood. Given that its narrator wrestles painfully with bulimia, there’s a temptation to say that Gerard simply refracts these other forms of bodily harm through the mindset of the bulimic. But since the narrator devotes so much of her attention to the anarchist politics of her boyfriend and the cultural maladies that ignite his indignation, it’s more accurate to say that Gerard’s true interest is the mindset of the obsessive, broadly conceived, and that the narrator and her boyfriend are possessed of variations on this mindset.

Binary Star is in many ways admirable,” Dan Green concludes in his review of the novel, “although more in the way of a good deed performed well than as a flash of artistic brilliance.” I agree with that judgment and share the sense of disappointment it entails. The shame of it is that Gerard equips Binary Star with qualities of artistic distinction and the building blocks of something brilliant, but her stance towards her own material is finally too conservative to allow her to unleash its potential. Comprised of sharp declarative statements that cumulatively advance a rhythm of unrelenting, oppressive insistence, the novel stylistically asserts the confidence and certitude of a narrator whose disclosures repeatedly give voice to self-doubt, insecurity, and increasing desperation. And yet despite the focused concision of its every sentence, and despite the intriguing tension between the substance of those sentences and their stylistic gloss, the novel runs to an excessive length. Clocking in at 166 pages, it offers little that couldn’t have been offered in half as many.

I mean that in quite a literal sense, since Binary Star is structured in a way that leaves a good portion of the prose superfluous. Perhaps the novel’s most innovative feature is the narrator’s extensive recourse to an astronomical lexicon in an effort to articulate human interactions and experiences. As a graduate student and lecturer in the field of astronomy, the narrator repeatedly turns her gaze skyward to disclose her knowledge of celestial phenomena in a way that refers and corresponds to the turmoils of her life. She and her boyfriend correspond to a binary star system in which two stars in orbital proximity gravitate towards each other and collide with catastrophic results. She purges herself of nutrition to accentuate her beauty, corresponding herself to a nova burning brighter the closer it comes to exhausting its fuel supply — although she neglects to notice that, for human beings, starvation entails an agonising death and not a dazzling glory. In one way or another, the vocabulary of the starscape is inscribed throughout the narrator’s writing as the basis of her ability to know and express herself.

The stars in these pages therefore function as much more than simple, occasional metaphors for the narrator to elaborate on her state of mind or the state of her relationship at any given moment. She uses them to conceptualise her place in the world around her, her position in relation to others, and the general direction of the life she is leading. Ruminations on the beauty and behaviour of the stars appear on almost every page, and sometimes they even extend across several pages in succession. Indeed, altogether, they comprise perhaps one third of the novel’s total length as the narrator alternates between depicting her experiences and describing their starbound parallels. Here, however, the pattern of alternation, pursued to great lengths and adhered to inflexibly, ossifies Binary Star. Of course it is initially necessary to enable readers to become accustomed to the structure of the novel and to be guided towards understanding that, for example, the narrator’s dissection of the mechanics and movements of a binary star system is really her way of discussing the subtleties and intimacies of her relationship with her boyfriend. But because the pattern persists well beyond the point at which the narrator has established the double significance of celestial bodies, the bravery she demonstrates in her difficult choice of subject and her idiosyncratic style is not strong enough for her to fully commit to the logic of her structure.

The result is a novel that disappointingly retreats from exploiting all of its structural possibilities. Gerard invests Binary Star with the potential to become something risky and radical — a novel that focuses on a narrator whose mind, body, and lover punish her on a daily basis, but also a novel that details the narrator’s trauma solely through her discussions of phenomena occurring at a vast distance from her own life — and yet this potential remains only that, exactly that, right through to the final page. Encased within Binary Star is a novel very different to the novel it becomes, a much less conventional novel that is structured into existence by an author who does not then withdraw from convention so that this other novel may exist more fully and completely. Because Gerard holds the hands of her readers for the duration of Binary Star, because she does not set them free to inhabit its structure at length, she effectively neuters its early capacity for innovation. Binary Star is a feral novel forced into domestic behaviour, a novel rendered far less adventurous than it wants itself to be.

“Madness” and “insanity” are the words most often deployed in descriptions of Hilda Hilst’s enigmatic novella, With My Dog-Eyes. It gives voice to “a mind unravelling,” writes Nick Lezard in The Guardian, “and through the gaps we see a horrified fascination with the body, a kind of carnal awareness of existential futility.” “[F]luid, shifting narration tells the story — if you can call it that — of mathematician and poet Amós Kéres’ descent into madness,” adds The Independent‘s Holly Williams, “mov[ing] rapidly between first person present tense, recalled memories, reported speech, and chunks of poetry; between absurdism, theory, fable and filth.” The novel “reads like a long poem,” Juan Vidal concurs in his review for NPR, “with utter insanity pervading each and every page. The vivid, disjointed prose mirrors the troubled mind of our protagonist… an expert in pure mathematics who is losing his grasp on reality.”

For me, however, the most captivating quality of With My Dog-Eyes is not the way in which Kéres’ burgeoning insanity leads his representations of events to become increasingly disjointed. That sort of thing has been done often enough before that it no longer bears remarking on. More captivating here is the way in which the novel’s structure projects a mind so fundamentally, inflexibly logical — so absolutely committed to mathematics — that when his reality begins to lose its logical underpinnings, when he ceases to grasp the causal connections between sequential experiences, Kéres mounts a resistance to insanity by seeking refuge in mathematical logic and marshalling his experiences into a form that follows its rules. Although this choice of form is to some extent suggestive of Kéres’ insanity, I was struck by how it also suggests his striving for coherence in the face of insanity — albeit a coherence that may likewise appear to be tainted by insanity insofar as the structure beneath the novella’s narrative surface is built upon an alternative to narrative logic.

“Poetry and mathematics,” Kéres muses, identifying his twin passions while recalling the onset of his insanity:

The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colors, life, a flashless dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning.

Kéres suffers from this event, of course, and begins to succumb to inexplicable lapses of time. While delivering a lecture on mathematics one day, he loses his train of thought and pauses for what he believes is only an instant. Later, though, he learns that his audience watched him staring into space for fifteen minutes before he returned to the task at hand — and worse than that, several students have complained to his superiors that such events are becoming fixtures of his classes. Rather than simply detailing Kéres’ lapses of time, however, With My Dog-Eyes as a whole is structured in a way that mimics their effects. Time and again events underway are cut off and interrupted by recollections of other, unrelated events, and these interruptions are in turn interrupted by yet other events, and even these interruptions of interruptions are themselves interrupted, until the narratorial focus snaps back to one or another of the previous recollections and the events therein resume or conclude as if they weren’t interrupted at all.

Mathematical Formulae

Disjointed, perhaps, but in another sense perhaps not. Although Kéres’ experience of madness no doubt disjoints his perception of reality, his recollection and articulation of that experience rejoints his reality along apparently mathematical lines. Every interruption of an event suggests some sort of association between that which is interrupted and that which interrupts. Moreover, every conclusion to an interrupted event delineates a boundary that encases all of the event’s associated interruptions no matter how disparate they may otherwise be. As a result, although the events detailed by Kéres appear to lack coherent narrative organization because they are presented achronologically and without any evident causal connections, a closer look at their structure reveals an attempt at mathematical organization instead. Sequences of interruptions constitute something akin to mathematical sets when bound together within broader events that receive a conclusion. Other events, outside of these sets, perform the role of functions when by modifying either an entire set or one of the events within it, and still other events that interlace the sets work to establish or modify the relations between several of them.

Beyond serving as a mathematician’s account of his own descent into madness, then, With My Dog-Eyes also stands as Kéres’ attempt to reclaim his sanity by conforming his experiences to a non-narrative logic that may still enable him to make sense of them. This logic affords him a structural foundation on which to articulate his experiences and better equips him to literally commensurate the bursts of “incommensurable meaning” that afflict him. Of course, every narrative that surveys a life and takes stock of its significance is, in a sense, a narrative pegged to a mathematical formula, at least to the extent that it fixes some sort of value to the life in question by illustrating “what it all adds up to.” But while most works of that sort cleave to fairly linear formulae that are compatible with conventional narrative logic, With My Dog-Eyes employs a formula more appropriate to its narrator and his mathematical mind. The result is not the pure and simple chaos of a man’s reality falling apart: “a mind unravelling,” “a descent into madness,” “utter insanity pervading each and every page.” It is an experience of chaos relentlessly subjected to a system of order whose principles are not easily accommodated by the medium in which the experience is given expression.

Silence, True and Pure

January 28, 2015

Me and Ivy

Silence has shrouded this space for much of the last few months because, in my life offline, most of my recent thoughts have been bent around a different kind of silence, a silence true and pure. In April 2014, my wife and I became parents to a healthy and happy little girl named Ivy. Not quite six months later, however, Ivy underwent behavioural tests that showed some signs of hearing loss, and then, when she was exactly six months, specialised tests revealed that she is in fact profoundly deaf. She can’t hear sounds of any kind, not even at the volume of a close-range aircraft engine, and she suffers hearing loss so extreme that she may never be able to hear at all.

In coping with the failure of hearing aids, in anticipating the insertion of a cochlear implant, in working full-time and parenting while also learning how to respond to deafness in children and how to adjust our lives to meet the needs of a child with a severe disability, the stresses of the period following Ivy’s diagnosis have been monumental. But some of the most monumental stresses of all have come less from practical difficulties than from daily wrestling with a sense of long-term loss and the grief that attends it. To know that our daughter has no access to sound is to know that we may never be able to share with her so much of what we most appreciate in the world. For my wife, the greatest loss to Ivy is music in all its varieties. Coming from a family for whom music is the lingua franca of shared experience, it has been terrible for her to begin processing the knowledge that Ivy will in some sense be forever cut off, kept at a distance, from that part of her heritage.1 For me, of course, what seems to be lost is Ivy’s access to what I believe is the greatest of the pleasures of literature.

I was teaching The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass when the results of Ivy’s tests came through and, at the same time, I was preparing to teach Gertrude Stein, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, and dozens of other writers who invest extraordinary energy in distinct, challenging, and versatile prose styles. I could not escape the obvious truth. So much of what literature means to me depends on being attuned to its prosody. So much of what makes it valuable for me resides in the harmonies and dissonances that develop and dissolve as the eye passes over a sentence, the succession of concordant and discordant intonations offered up by the author’s careful selection of words and by the equally careful positioning of those words in relation to one another. The value of prosody sings to me from the shelves full of books in my house and from every page of my own book, Blood and Bone, which was published when Ivy was just eight weeks old.

Language is the distillation of the constituent elements and concepts of the world, in all their overwhelming variety, into a system of symbols. For most people, at first, those symbols take the form of sound. Literature, then, is not a system of symbols constructed to represent the world, but a system of symbols constructed to represent other symbols, a lexical representation of the auditory symbols that are our primary means of referring to the world and of thereby representing it. Even though reading remains a “visual business,” as William H. Gass puts it, the writers whose work attracts me are those whose practices involve what Gass calls a sense of “the marvelous palpable quality of making words and sounding them.” Indeed, whether it be the work of Didion or Sontag, McCarthy or Murnane, Hemingway or Faulkner, Gaddis or Wallace, what resonates most powerfully with me is work in which each word seems to have been selected as much for its fixed referential qualities as for its atmospheric musicality, so that a carefully constructed tonal and prosodic soundtrack shadows the literal meaning of every sentence. But one need not turn to the writers above to seek out works in which prosody stands at the forefront of appreciable literary qualities. It’s there, too, at the forefront of just about every children’s book on the market — the majority of which make liberal use of qualities like alliteration and rhyme — so that Ivy’s deafness blocks her access to the pleasures of the literature available to her even at this early stage in her life. Will it hold other pleasures for her sometime further on? And equally, given the efforts now underway to facilitate Ivy’s acquisition of language, will literature come to hold for her distinct and unique pleasures that I can never access?

My wife and I are in the midst of learning British Sign Language (BSL) so that we can pass it on to her. This is a difficult process because, whereas hearing children acquire language by environmental means, simply by being within earshot of spoken language on a regular basis, Ivy will acquire it only through bursts of direct visual contact with BSL practitioners. Nevertheless, with BSL as her native language, with the constituent elements and concepts of the world distilled into a system of symbols entailing bodily movement, written language will call to mind a complex of worldly referents and movement sensations where otherwise it would call to mind a complex of referents and sounds.2 If, for me, to read is to see a word written on the page and then, reflexively, to simultaneously grasp its referent and hear in my head the whisper of its sound, will Ivy’s reading involve grasping a referent while also feeling a ghostly motion passing through her fingers, her face, her torso and her arms? If written words transmit to me a sense of music unaccompanied by motion, will they transmit to Ivy something like a dance without a tune? What exactly will be, for her, the sensation that shadows their meaning? And if, someday, Ivy were to read the work of any of the writers named above, would she experience a sensation as pleasurable as the one I derive from their sound? She almost certainly wouldn’t. This is not to say that the sensation of movement in sign language cannot generate pleasure,3 but only that the above writers have arranged their words on the page so as to produce pleasure through sound without regard for signs. Additionally, since sign languages vary greatly from country to country and even amongst countries that share a spoken language, and since the grammatical structures of the sign languages of English-speaking countries tend to depart significantly from the structures of spoken English, chaos is the inevitable result of any attempt to sign a word-for-word translation of a sentence as written in English.

When it comes to novels, then, what possibilities exist for native signers? Is there anywhere a novel written so as to be instantly grammatically intelligible to them, independent of any habituation to the grammar of written English? Is there anywhere a novel whose prose, whose selection and sequencing of words, is directed towards producing pleasurable sensations of ghostly movements for signers rather than producing sensations of sounds? Is there a work whose every turn of phrase is intended not to appeal to those who can hear and to generate pleasure through prosodic musicality, but rather to appeal specifically to the deaf by pleasurably conducting the motions of a body accustomed to sign? Is the composition of such a work even possible? If so, what sorts of sensations would the reading of it produce in a person who reads the way I do?

 

 


Notes

1. While cochlear implants “have the potential to magnificently enhance the understanding and acquisition of spoken language,” as Gavin Francis observes in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “15 to 20 percent of recipients gain little benefit from them and, contrary to some claims, they don’t reproduce normal hearing. Instead they transmit a simplified, broken-down representation of the acoustic world” which “one of the technology’s pioneers, Michael Merzenich, likens [to] ‘playing Chopin with your fist.’” Even in the best-case scenario, then, a full appreciation of music will probably remain inaccessible to Ivy.

2. As Susan Goldin-Meadow and Rachel Mayberry write, “To become readers, [hearing] children must learn the mapping between the spoken language they already know and printed words on a page. For English, as for most languages, that mapping is based on sound. Once children understand the underlying principles of the print-sound mapping… they can call upon their knowledge of their spoken language to facilitate the reading process,” such as when they are guided into ‘sounding out’ the letters of an unfamiliar word. But “deaf children are disadvantaged as potential readers on both of these counts — they do not have easy access to the phonological code and many do not know any language well.” Moreover, when “deaf readers translate [a written] sentence into [sign language],” they are continually at risk of finding the written sentence “relatively difficult to process,” and therefore unpleasant to read, because, among other reasons, “the signs in the translation [may be too] similar in form.”

3. In his recent book Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon describes, with a sense of childlike wonder, watching the movements of a deaf woman who “manifests a pleasure in [her language] that only poets feel for English” through movements “so swift, crisp, and perfectly controlled that she seems to be arranging the air into a more acceptable shape.”

 

My research notes for Blood and Bone are now online at Necessary Fiction:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” Cormac McCarthy once said. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” But as well as appending those remarks to a list of his literary influences, McCarthy named the writers whose work he most dislikes (Marcel Proust, Henry James) and suggested that his own books are made not only out of others but against them as well. According to this view of things, literature is a form of protest against a sense of absence in the world. Since readers hardly need new work that merely echoes work already in existence, there must be, among the forces that compel a person to sit down and write a book, some lingering dissatisfaction with the books already written and some notion of a sort of book that has not been written before. Those forces are certainly what compelled me to write my novel Blood and Bone, a novel that contains traces of the books instrumental to its creation and that also, in a way, endeavors to unwrite them.

Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Rohan Wilson, Geraldine Brooks, and Hannah Kent each score a mention for having influenced the writing of Blood and Bone in much the same way that Proust might have influenced Blood Meridian.

Blood and Bone Reviewed

August 16, 2014

Blood and Bone reviewed in
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age carry a short review of Blood and Bone. Kerryn Goldsworthy, one of Australia’s best critics and winner of last year’s Pascall Prize, says that it “fulfils two objectives: shedding light on a dark past, and exploring intellectual and aesthetic problems that the writing of such a story might create.” Click here to read the review online or click the picture to read it as it appears in print.

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