Empty Set
By Verónica Gerber Bicecci & Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, 2018
232 Pages, $16.95
Review by Torin Jensen

Coffee House Press has been publishing vital, adventurous fiction for years now, and to their credit, much of it has been in translation. Empty Set, by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, translated by the prolific Christina MacSweeney, is no exception. A deceptively simple story of a missing mother, a breakup, and a love interest, Bicecci spins together a seemingly disheveled narrative with delightful visual representations of itself that ultimately reveals a finely wrought novel with big questions at its heart.

There are a number of narrative threads woven throughout the achronological passages, including Verónica’s narration, drawings, letters, and “observation sheets,” which serve as enigmatic time stamps. Much of the action takes place in and around “The Bunker,” Verónica’s mom’s apartment in Mexico City where she retreats after her boyfriend breaks up with her. The apartment, in a seemingly unchanged state of disrepair since the mom vanished, gives Verónica something to do: the water-damaged living room wall is sagging and needs reinforcement. After she buys some plywood boards, however, she becomes enamored with the swirling knots and forms of the wood grain and how they allow her (“who wanted to be a visual artist, but visualized almost everything in words”) to visualize the strange characteristics of time.

This draws her into the university library, where she finds the word “dendrochronology” which for her becomes a “means of studying time and space without going up in a rocket or solving quantum physics equations.” More importantly for Verónica, and the reader, is that tree rings, and their visual representations, become a question of how “a set of truncated outsets, an abrupt ending, or disappearance would be written in that language.”

The narrative passages, and their sneaky achronological order, provide the “truncated outsets,” “abrupt ending,” and “disappearance.” There’s the previously mentioned disappearance of Verónica’s mother, whose vanishing seems simultaneously abrupt and drawn-out. In any case, it’s mysterious, and its mystery continues until the final page and, perhaps, thereafter. The “abrupt ending” is her breakup with Tordo, which, along with her mother’s disappearance, instigates her contemplation of parallel universes and how lives end or don’t end. And finally, the truncated outsets: there’s Verónica’s own mother, who along with her father, fled Argentina’s Dirty War (Verónica’s grandmother still lives there); there’s Alonso, who serves as a possibility of love for Verónica but also hires her to organize his mother’s archive; there’s Alonso’s mother (deceased), who Verónica gets to know through photographs and letters and who also fled Argentina.

These threads gradually cohere as you work out the characters’ relations to each other and the order of events, but there’s no hurry. Along with Verónica’s penchant for anagrams, the various pieces are a pleasure to put together. And Verónica’s quiet, spare narration nevertheless contains wonderful moments of vulnerability and wonderment, moments we all have, but rarely share. She has a way of mulling over concepts like disappearances (including the dictator-caused kind) and the circular nature of time without descending into abstract nothingness or cynicism. And she’s funny; Bicecci imbues her with a sense of humor that sneaks up on you.

Bicecci, who describes herself as an artist who writes, also imbues the narrator Verónica with an impressive ability to draw her narrative’s situations in simple, engaging ways. These little drawings frequently follow narrative events and are presented as Verónica’s attempt to visualize and make sense of the metaphysical situations she finds herself in. As such, as characters are introduced they are given a letter that represents them in her drawings. Verónica is “I,” her mother is “M,” her brother is “B,” and so on. They serve as helpful touchstones in the drawings themselves and also as important reminders of the languages being used in the book, the visual drawings, the visual nature of language, the literal and abstract language of space. They literalize the themes running throughout the book, like parallel universes and twinning and voids. And they offer moments of humor, as when Verónica notes the literal and psychological irritations of seeing images of Tordo’s girlfriend’s twin, a famous actress, everywhere about town. She gives Tordo’s girlfriend the letter “H,” for her, and her twin the letter “H” with an asterisk:

Going to the movies, watching TV, listening to the radio, or driving along major avenues were all high-risk activities, as they could involve coming across Them(H,H*). Perhaps this synthesis was unfair: for a long time I thought of Them(H,H*) as the same person because their duplicated image added an unbearable weight to the void facing me. The down side, among other dumb things, was that I had to stop eating Bubu Lubus.

Bicecci is a gifted writer, comfortable wielding an assortment of narrative pieces towards a collective whole, but it’s also a mark of her artistic skill that the drawings throughout Empty Set are not only integral to the narrative but are delightful pieces on their own. It’s refreshing to read so many ways and mediums of seeing in one book, from two-dimensional representations of multiple universes and telescopic views of plywood to washing machine/future metaphors and the intersections of lovers.

Who knew a half-drawn, half-achronological narrative with considerations of time and space and loss and love could be so fun, so easy to devour? There’s also an illuminating afterword from translator Christina Macsweeney, who admirably wrangled a considerable translation and visual problem into the easygoing narrative. Kudos to her, and to Coffee House Press, who have an eye for fun yet chewy, unusual fiction like this.