Mexican author Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s first novel is like a Rubik’s Cube in the best possible way: there may be an elegant solution, but this puzzle of a story doesn’t make it easy to find. The head-scratching challenge of deciphering the messages and meanings hidden in the combination of Gerber Bicecci’s spare words and enigmatic diagrams is one of the most appealing aspects of this unusual narrative.
Empty Set moves back and forth in time, beginning in Mexico in 2003 with a breakup. The young narrator, Verónica, has unwillingly split from her live-in boyfriend, Tordo. At twenty-two, she is trying to process this loss in the context of her broader life. She uses the logic of set theory and Venn diagrams to help her understand her complex connections to others and the ways in which her experiences intersect with the important people in her life. She is no stranger to loss: seven years ago her mother vanished, leaving Verónica and her older brother to fend for themselves in their mother’s dilapidated apartment; what they call “the bunker.”
When she returns to this place after her relationship ends, she describes it as “A perfectly closed system Mom(M) constructed before rubbing herself out, one that managed to produce some kind of gravitational singularity.” The notion of the bunker as a location where the laws of physics do not apply and where time and space have no meaning in relation to each other is crucial to the story. For Verónica, the bunker is a black hole at the center of “an inexplicable mystery of matter.”
Much of Empty Set concerns the trauma of exile and its long-lasting effect on interrupted lives. Verónica’s parents left Argentina for Mexico in 1976 to escape the violent military dictatorship that lasted until 1983. Verónica says:
“In my elementary school, I learned about my ‘nuclear’ family,’ the one that lives in Mexico, and that idea seemed plausible because I could imagine an explosion that had scattered us all around the world. That bomb, in our case, is called dictatorship. And the explosion, exile.”
When Verónica returns to Argentina to visit her grandmother, she discovers that time, as “that linear concept we all think about,” has stopped not only in the bunker in Mexico, but also in her grandmother’s home:
“Grandma(G)’s home is suspended in time. It’s also stuck in the moment my grandparents last saw Mom(M). The house in Iponá and the bunker: a pair of found mirrors.”
Verónica is especially unsettled by an unfinished staircase in her grandmother’s home that would have led to a second story where she would have lived with her brother and the rest of the family had her parents not been forced to flee Argentina. The staircase is a ghostly symbol of another life in a parallel universe that might have existed.
While it is possible to read Empty Set as a straightforward and tragic story of a mother’s disappearance from her children’s lives, Gerber Bicecci scatters a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the novel that hint at an even deeper metaphysical layer of meaning. They reference phantoms—“things that can’t be told in words”—and to a secret that Verónica and her brother share but don’t really understand. In a critical but brief passage halfway through the novel, Verónica alludes to the possibility that her mother’s vanishing might somehow be connected to the “disappearing” of Argentinian citizens under the dictatorship. “It’s a logical absurdity,” she figures, “because if it were possible for us to go to the Plaza de Mayo and demand her return, we would never have been born in the first place.”
So what is real in Empty Set and what is illusion? Did Verónica’s mother really go away somewhere she can’t be found? Or, are Verónica and her brother in fact the phantoms—an empty set inhabiting a parallel universe of lost possibility? Certainly there is evidence in this wonderfully kaleidoscopic novel—so inventive, thought provoking, and offbeat—to suggest that may be the case. As with any good work of experimental fiction that defies conventional expectations, however, there are no definitive answers here and no elegant solutions.
Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press
Published February 6, 2018
Verónica Gerber Bicecci is a visual artist who writes. In 2013 she was awarded the third Aura Estrada prize for literature. She is an editor with Tumbona Ediciones, a publishing cooperative with a catalogue that explores the intersections between literature and art.
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Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.