FEBRUARY 7, 2018
THE OTHER DAY, I had a long, heated conversation with my son and a friend of his, both of whom are in their early 20s. My son is a painter, his friend is a writer, and the conversation was about the current state (and fate) of narrative. They are both ambitious; they work hard, range widely, get excited about all sorts of things, but their overall mood was pessimistic, disappointed, sometimes angry. They’re overwhelmed by the fragmentary nature of experience, their inability (anyone’s ability) to order it into a meaningful whole. They despair at the way narratives are snatched up and rendered meaningless by their commodification in a voracious, fast-moving market. They wonder whether it’s possible — and, if so, how — to create narratives that transcend this onerous situation.
I see their point. It’s a stressful time. Attention spans are short. Narrative can seem irrelevant. And it’s hard to be young and ambitious, difficult to gather the bulk and speed necessary to begin your life’s work in earnest. But within my own, more tempered pessimism, I am guardedly optimistic. My experience in the classroom, where I teach writing to undergraduates, has made it clear to me that people still need stories, maybe more than before. I have faith in the basics — character, plot, setting, dramatic tension — at least as a starting point. And I’m heartened by narrative’s seemingly infinite ability to reinvent itself in response to ever-changing realities. As my son and his friend dug in, shooting down my arguments, I offered them some concrete examples — the rise of memoir alongside the yuppie uniformity of the 1980s, the evolution of the fragmented narrative to capture an increasing plurality of identities within cultures and individuals in the aughts — and they acknowledged the narrative vitality of rap and hip-hop, reciting some blisteringly smart lyrics as proof. But they were unconvinced. I would have left it there, a typical rift between generations, but I’m a mother, and mothers like to solve problems — they like to make things right. “Have faith. Tell your stories!” I encouraged them. “Don’t get caught up in the negativity.” But I began to doubt myself as our conversation limped to its unsatisfying conclusion. Who was I to be so optimistic? Maybe they were right.
Enter Empty Set, a short novel by a promising young Mexican writer named Verónica Gerber Bicecci that was just published in English by Coffee House Press. A smart story of love and loss with a clever mix of narrative techniques, Empty Set may be an antidote to the current climate of despair.
Gerber Bicecci describes herself as a “visual artist who writes,” and much of her early work is visual: drawings, murals, and public installations that focus on silence, negative space, and the pregnant pauses that grow around punctuation marks in the prose and poetry of well-known writers such as T. S. Eliot, Julio Cortázar, and Rosario Castellanos. Empty Set has important visual components, but first and foremost it displays Gerber Bicecci’s talent as a writer. The characters are rich and well developed, the mood is contagious, and the plot is simple yet intriguingly complex. The novel, which is achronological (although the shifts in time are so subtle that, at first, we barely notice them), unfolds in short, fragmented sections that are frequently punctuated by drawings, puzzles, and letters. But as Juan Pablo Villalobos, the talented author of Down the Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas, says in a review, Gerber Bicecci “does not shirk the narrator’s responsibility toward plot.”
Empty Set tells the story of Verónica, a 22-year-old Mexican woman who is trying to get over a guy named Tordo, an older man who seems to have been her first serious boyfriend. Adrift, she moves back to her mother’s apartment, a disorderly place nicknamed “the bunker,” where she grapples with her mother’s mysterious disappearance seven years before and the painful solitude she and her brother faced in their mother’s absence. The story takes place in Mexico City, Argentina, and (briefly) Brooklyn. There’s a cat; a German hookup; some friends at UNAM, Mexico’s prestigious state university; a promising new relationship with a graduate student named Alonso; and a loving brother (in a few quick scenes, Gerber Bicecci captures the lingering closeness of siblings who have grown up and gone their separate ways). While she is holed up in the bunker trying to recover her equilibrium, Verónica spends a lot of time painting the swirling rings on the plywood she buys to shore up a wall in the apartment that is collapsing from humidity, contemplating, as she does so, the elusive nature of time (Gerber Bicecci’s parents are Argentinian, and like many writers in this tradition, she is interested in time and the melancholy that results from the recognition of its passing). Short on cash, Verónica finds a job archiving the belongings of Alonso’s recently deceased mother who, like Verónica’s parents, fled the dictatorship in Argentina for Mexico City in the 1970s.
In her art, Gerber Bicecci sometimes uses set theory to explore human relationships. In mathematics (and philosophy), a set is a collection of objects or elements. Sets can intersect with other sets (as in a Venn diagram), unite with other sets, or be subsets of a larger set. In Empty Set, Gerber Bicecci uses drawings of sets to visually represent what her characters are going through at particular moments in the story. Sometimes they are alone, sometimes they intersect or merge with others, and sometimes, most importantly for the themes of love and loss in this story, they have lost a part of themselves to a failed relationship (with lovers, mothers) and don’t know what to do about it. At first, these drawings may seem like an intellectual exercise, which, in part, they are, but they fulfill several functions in the novel. They help us keep the plot lines straight. They help us sort the characters into sets: siblings, students, Argentinians, men who sleep with Verónica. And the drawings, which are warm and witty, little characters in and of themselves, help us visualize loss and the ways that people deal with it.
But Empty Set isn’t just about these characters and their relationships. It’s about loss on a more abstract level — loss of place, loss of continuity, the inestimable losses that happen when people’s lives are uprooted by political crisis. Verónica’s parents are Argentinian, refugees from the 1976–1983 military dictatorship, and on some level the book is about the far-ranging effects of Argentina’s Dirty War. During the dictatorship, upward of 30,000 people, many of them students, were jailed, tortured, and “disappeared” by the military. Gerber Bicecci’s Argentinian characters weren’t disappeared in the political sense — they escaped to Mexico — but none are present in the story. Verónica’s father is absent — out of neglect or an unwillingness to face reality — and her mother has either “rubb[ed] herself out,” gone to the ends of the earth to find love, become a ghost haunting the apartment, or succumbed to mental illness, it’s never clear which. Alonso’s mother, another refugee, is dead and was, in life, a shadow of what she might have been.
There’s a moving set of scenes that take place in Argentina toward the end of the novel that reveals yet another side to this loss. Verónica and her brother have gone to visit their grandmother, an elderly widow who lives, like Verónica and her brother and mother in the bunker, in a chronic state of disorder. A blocked-off staircase in her living room leads to an unbuilt second floor, where Verónica and her brother would have lived had their parents not fled the country — a potent symbol of tragedy in a place like Argentina, where family is everything. Verónica is distressed by this: “We never lived in that house they never finished building, to which they never added a second floor. Never, never, never. Three times never.” As usual, though, Gerber Bicecci offsets her deeper themes with a wry, familial humor that makes the family’s absence from Argentina more devastating: her grandmother’s refrigerator “is a cemetery of mate bags” (mate is a bitter South American tea). The house, her brother cracks, is the “Southern Cone branch office” of the bunker. Seeing Verónica and her brother in Argentina, however briefly, we understand what might have been.
The novel takes its title from another aspect of set theory: empty sets, or sets that contain no elements. For instance, you could have a set of “people with brown eyes in your house” that may be empty until someone with brown eyes walks through the door. But empty sets can be filled and interact with other sets. And it’s Verónica’s desire to see how sets work, to “fill” her set and interact with other sets, that moves the story forward. Toward the end of the novel, she gets so close to another character that they merge completely, and even though this interaction is fleeting, it suggests an optimism on Gerber Bicecci’s part that is crucial to the story. We may, at times, be empty sets, separated from others without hope of connection, but we can also join sets, merge with other sets, and leave sets behind. For Gerber Bicecci, this possibility is not just personal, it’s political. During the Argentinian dictatorship, we learn, teaching mathematics with set theory was prohibited. “From the perspective of sets,” Verónica suggests,
dictatorship makes no sense, because its aim is, for the most part, dispersal: separation, scattering, disunity, disappearance. Maybe what worried them was that children would learn from an early age to form communities, to reflect collectively, to discover the contradictions of language, of the system.
Empty Set isn’t a graphic novel. Words predominate, and images, while important, are intermittent, not organizational. But the novel has a youthful tone that I associate, for some reason, with even the most serious graphic novels, an uplifting (if bittersweet) tone that fits the story perfectly. The ending shouldn’t come as a surprise, but, to Gerber Bicecci’s credit, it does. Suspicious of narrative at the beginning of the story, hiding behind her puzzles and her diagrams, Verónica gradually finds a place within it, a way forward that offers readers an enticing model for how to exist in a fragmented world of ever-multiplying identities. And the way Gerber Bicecci achieves this — an old-school plot within a boldly confident fragmentary structure made conceptual by the inspired use of images — is exactly what I meant when I was trying to convince my son and his friend of the power of narrative ingenuity.
The translation by Christina MacSweeney, who has translated other promising young Mexican writers such as Valeria Luiselli and Daniel Saldaña París, is excellent. With one exception. In Spanish, personal pronouns are often omitted because verb endings make them redundant. For instance, I see can be translated as either veo or yo veo. The o at the end of veo lets the reader know it’s a first-person form of the verb ver, so the yo (I) isn’t necessary — it’s generally used for emphasis. To connect her characters to the drawings, Gerber Bicecci assigns them each an abbreviation in the text — for instance, Brother(B). In Spanish, Yo(Y) works visually (the word Yo is differentiated from the letter Y that represents it in the drawings), but in English there is no such differentiation — I(I). This problem (among other things) led MacSweeney to omit the I in many of Gerber Bicecci’s sentences, resulting in some awkward moments:
One fine day, without warning, I woke up at the ending. Hadn’t even gotten up when, from the bedroom door, about to leave for one of his classes, Tordo(T) said:
You’re not like you used to be.
I understand MacSweeney’s decision conceptually. And her explanation, in the book’s afterword, offers a welcome look at the difficult work of translation. But since it’s customary in English to use personal pronouns and Gerber Bicecci’s prose, despite the book’s fragmentary structure, is not experimental in Spanish, it makes the book difficult, at times, to read.
Latin American literature has long been dominated by men. Lately, though, there’s been a flourishing of female writers in Latin America, especially in Mexico and Argentina, and it’s good to see American publishers like Coffee House Press taking note of them — writers such as Guadalupe Nettel, Laia Jufresa, and Valeria Luiselli in Mexico; Samanta Schweblin, Leila Guerriero, and Pola Oloixarac in Argentina; and Lina Meruane in Chile. Hip, global, sometimes experimental, many of these writers seem to have leapfrogged over issues of gender and female identity that have preoccupied previous generations (and some of their contemporaries in the North), resulting in another kind of narrative ingenuity. Like the young women in Empty Set, their characters study, think, work, explore. They love (and lose) like anyone.
With a generosity that is typical of Latin American artists and governmental institutions, Gerber Bicecci has made much of her work available on her website, in both Spanish and English. Her art and the conceptual ideas behind it are in full evidence at veronicagerberbicecci.net, but Empty Set is a great book in its own right, and my bet is that her future will be more literary.
Lisa Fetchko has published essays, fiction, reviews, and translations in a variety of publications including Ploughshares, n+1, AGNI, and Bookforum. She teaches at Mount Saint Mary’s and Orange Coast College.