Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci

Empty Set BY Verónica Gerber Bicecci. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 232 pages. $16.
The cover of Empty Set

In Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s novel Empty Set, the book’s narrator, an authorial stand-in also named Verónica, is haunted by her mother’s disappearance back when she was fifteen. In the book’s slightly fantastical world, this disappearance is gradual, ghostly: One day, Verónica and her brother noticed that it was increasingly difficult to understand what their mother was saying. She began to literally fade away and “in the end, we couldn’t see her anymore.” Years after the disappearance, Veronica and her brother still glimpse (or think they glimpse) phantom-like images of their mom around the apartment.

The question of disappearance hangs heavily over Verónica’s story. In 1976, years before Verónica was born, her parents fled to Mexico from Argentina, which was then ruled by a regime that regularly disappeared its citizens. Although Empty Set is at times a playful, often funny work, the book becomes increasingly concerned with Veronica’s efforts to uncover her ancestral legacy, which seemingly disappeared along with her mother. After returning home, Verónica finds work organizing the archives of Marisa Chubut, a late Argentinian writer who also fled the dictatorship for Mexico, and plans a trip back to the country with her brother.

A young woman who “wanted to be a visual artist, but visualized almost everything in words,” Verónica narrates her story using both written and visual language. Interspersed between short chapters Gerber Bicecci reproduces the charts, graphs, and diagrams that Verónica relies on to find order and meaning in her complicated, fantastical world. “We’re constantly drawing something we can never manage to see completely,” she writes. “We only have one side, an edge of our own history, and the rest is hidden.”

The Venn diagram is of particular use to Verónica. “Through them,” she explains, “you can see the world ‘from above.’” But their aerial perspective is not the only reason Verónica is drawn to them: the diagram and logic system it comes from also have significant political implications. Under the military dictatorship in Argentina, it was prohibited to teach set theory or use Venn diagrams in schools. Speculating on the reasons for this ban, she notes that set theory allows people to group together in communities based on common interests. “From the perspective of sets, dictatorship makes no sense, because its aim is, for the most part, dispersal: separation, scattering, disunity, disappearance,” she writes. “Maybe what worried them was that children would learn from an early age to form communities, to reflect collectively.” If this anti-communal directive led to the separation and scattering of her own family, along with the disappearance of thousands of other citizens, then Verónica will return to this logic in order to achieve some form of unity in her own life.

This quest for unity comes to the forefront when she takes a job organizing Marisa’s archives. An Argentinian author whose expatriation mirrors her family’s own story, the glamorous Marisa fled to Mexico after appearing in a controversial play that caught the attention of the authorities. Because her own mother’s past is largely unavailable to Verónica, her investigation into Marisa’s archives, which includes the discovery of a mysterious lover, comes to take the place of her personal history. “With a little reconstruction here and a little there,” Verónica writes, “I ended by understanding more about [Marisa’s] exile than my own parents.’”

A seemingly endless number of identical hand-written copies of Exile,Marisa’s only book, in increasingly illegible handwriting mark the writer’s disintegrating mental state. A stash of photographs with the figures cut out seems ominous until Verónica discovers a collage made from the cut-outs, a way of reclaiming those lost to history, a means of making those “absent characters coexist.” As Verónica delves into the archive, she continues to sort out her position in the world with a series of increasingly complex diagrams that come more and more to illustrate a correspondence between two parallel planes: one representing her day-to-day world and the other the historical wormhole that she enters through her work in Marisa’s archive.

This sense of divided worlds increases and becomes more personal when, at the end of the book, Verónica and her brother finally visit their grandmother’s house in Argentina. There, amidst withered trees, flickering light bulbs, and endless dust, she sees the unmistakable, heartbreaking evidence of a forked path in time. In her grandmother’s living room, she observes a staircase that stops at the ceiling. It was meant to lead to a second story that Verónica’s grandfather planned to build for her family to live in. Now, Verónica finds herself in an alternate-universe version of her grandmother’s house, a frozen-in-time, barely hospitable apartment. It all should have been different, Verónica realizes, but the forces of history have their own irrefutable logic. “We never lived in that house they never finished building, to which they never added a second floor,” she concludes, before adding, her sense of resignation mixed with a note of admiration, “but they did build a staircase to the end of the world.”

Andrew Schenker is a New York–based writer and an MFA candidate at Bennington College.