Verónica Gerber Bicecci - a playful novel which uses a conceit (in this case, diagramming relationships) to take on ideas. Here: absence, the disappeared, and the physics of time

Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Empty Set, Trans. by Christina MacSweeney, Coffee House Press, 2018.              
Read the first pages here 

How do you draw an affair? A family? Can a Venn diagram show the ways overlaps turn into absences, tree rings tell us what happens when mothers leave? Can we fall in love according to the hop skip of an acrostic? Empty Set is a novel of patterns, its young narrator's attempt at making sense of inevitable loss, tracing her way forward in loops, triangles, and broken lines.
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.

Conjunto vacío tells the story of Verónica, the daughter of Argentine expats who live in Mexico City. Verónica must return to her mother's old apartment, the place where she lived before she suddenly disappeared a few years ago. It's also a story of love and loss in which a breakup results in a journey to uncover family roots.
Whenever words aren't enough, they stutter, the decompose and only drawings, abstractions and sketches will do. This novel invents its own language. From the written word to visual representations, the author builds a story filled with holes that open up inside other holes. Written in a lucid and melancholy tone, Conjunto vacío is a brilliant and honest début that invites the reader into a unique fictional universe that confirms Gerber is one of the most interesting voices in contemporary Mexican literature.

"Verónica Gerber writes with a luminous intimacy; her novel is clever, vibrant, moving, profoundly original. Reading it made me feel as if the world had been rebuilt." —Francisco Goldman

"From the very beginning, Verónica Gerber set out to write a novel that would end up at a loss for words. She alone could achieve this feat: because she's a visual artist who takes everything she reads in as concentric circles threaded with color, and because she writes essays on painters who write across canvasses and writers who paint plots from the realities of life. . . . She alone could bring the necessary silence to a novel so perfect it ended up leaving me speechless as well." —Jorge F. Hernández

Empty Set was voted best book of last year by The Wild Detectives staff, friends and collaborators… in its Spanish edition! Meaning that almost every Spanish speaker who read it agreed to chose it as its favorite pick.-

If something illuminates the writing of Gerber (Mexico City, 1981), it is the transparency, the gracefulness, the confidence, she is an authentic and perhaps unintentional Stendhalian who, in Conjunto vacío tells, in both an unusual and familiar way, a lapse in the history of her generation, the one of the first South Americans born in Mexico—the place where their parents took refuge while the atrocious dictatorships reigned in the South. By force, this literature will be very different from that of their parents. — Christopher Domínguez

For the young writer and visual artist Verónica Gerber, the city, the world, literature and above all, exile, constitute an empty set, a uninhabited nest from which a mother escapes and in whose interior a bunker is built to have a secure life… When words become insufficient they all that is left are sketches, abstractions, diagrams. This novel does not hesitate to invent its own language: a language formed with graphics, lines and empty spaces. From writing to visual representations, the author builds a story of holes that appear inside other holes. — Mónica Maristáin

It is clear that Conjunto vacío is an experiment that transcends mere narrative aesthetics in order to go deep into what is intrinsic to human beings, be it the question of identity, space, or the absence or constant accumulation of emptiness.   — Federico González

The reader becomes a detective and rummages in the story to find out its secrets. This is the bet that the author Verónica Gerber (Ciudad de México, 1981) imprinted to her novel Conjunto vacío.   — Juan Carlos Talavera

In an intimate, precise and profound prose, that just occasionally observes the world “from above” according to the set theory, [Verónica Gerber] attempts to better narrate what has always resisted itself to the stubborn linearity of writing: the wounds of exile, the disappearances, the disappointments of love… A solid and luminous first novel that renews, like few others, the landscape of young Latin American authors. Gerber is a writer who draws and who has managed to slip some “true icons” into the ranks of these lines of little black signs printed on pages that we have all agreed to call literature.  — Graciela Speranza

Bicecci’s experimental novel takes a unique approach to topics like debilitating loneliness, political repression, and epistemological crises. The narrator is Veronica, an aspiring visual artist, who lives with her brother in “the bunker,” a Mexico City apartment from which their mother, an exile who fled the Argentinian dictatorship, vanished when they were teenagers. Living in this “time capsule where everything is in a state of permanent neglect,” both siblings are “professional suspicionists” whose mother’s disappearance has affected the way they see the world: “Events always had a dark side, a shaded area we couldn’t make out, one that, despite being empty, always meant something more.” The novel whimsically chronicles Veronica’s various attempts to plumb these unknowable depths by studying tree rings, reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and sifting through the papers of a deceased writer whose history mirrors her mother’s. In further efforts to decipher life’s mysteries, she also represents her familial and romantic relationships as Venn diagrams, which (among other illustrations) are reproduced in the text: “Visualized this way, ‘from above,’ the world reveals relationships and functions that are not completely obvious.” The graphics may strike readers as more gimmicky than revelatory, but nonetheless Bicecci has created a charming, elliptical novel.
- Publishers Weekly

Set in Mexico and Argentina, Bicecci's debut novel concerns itself with time, disappearance, Venn diagrams, and the circularity of the universe.
Just before Veronica's 15th birthday, her mother disappears, leaving the girl and her brother with an "interminable absence" for which "there's no recognizable cause....Only a series of scattered, meaningless clues. A set emptying out little by little. Disordered fragments." Time in this novel, for both the narrator, Veronica, and the reader, moves disjointedly, in fits and starts. Characters and events are introduced out of order, and the text is broken by line drawings, diagrams, and blank spaces. Tenuously holding these fragments together are Veronica's romantic struggles and her ongoing search for understanding and connection. After a failed love affair, she returns to her mother's apartment ("the bunker"), where she attempts to fix a sagging wall with plywood, tracing the growth rings in paint and meditating on dendrochronology: "each wood shaving contains discontinuous moments from the life of the tree." Beyond the details of past and present human relationships, the political hangs like a shadow. Veronica takes a job organizing the effects of a deceased writer who, like her parents, fled Argentina for Mexico in the 1970s; the task makes her feel divided between parallel universes in which she coexists with the absence of her mother and the late author of Exile. For the writer, Veronica realizes, the places she "needs to return to no longer exist, and that is the root of her tragedy...the consequences of dictatorship are felt afterwards, long afterwards." In a documentary she watches with her brother, people in the Atacama Desert search for the remains of those "disappeared" by the government. Her mother's own disappearance remains mysterious. "Love confirms the circularity of the universe," the writer's lover claims in a telegram, and the ending plays with this idea.
Within the deliberately fractured text, themes echo and time folds and unfolds. A spare, artfully constructed meditation on loss, both personal and national.  - Kirkus Reviews

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, but Empty Set is a great book in its own right, and my bet is that her future will be more literary. - Lisa Fetchko!

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

Part family history, part lost love story, and mostly memoirish novel, Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s experiment with fragmented narrative augmented by illustration is not entirely successful but is quite engaging in many ways.
The first-person narrator, Verónica, begins with her love life and loss, employing mathematical-style parenthetical notation at the end of names: Tordo (T), Mom (M). This oddity becomes less so as she begins to use this alphabetic shorthand in the diagrams she employs to illustrate the complex and sometimes not so complex interactions among the characters. As a result, she provides an emphatic reassertion of certain prose points in graphic form.
Loss and disappearance dominate the narrative—of a lover, of a mother, and of the many disappeared of Argentina. That country and Mexico are the geographic backdrops for the novel, but Argentina haunts the protagonist. It is never precisely clear whether she was born there and emigrated to Mexico, but the empty set, the nothingness, at the core of her story finds its roots there. Verónica has clear theories about this specific kind of emptiness. She notes that as opposed to the sudden and complete absence created by death, which eventually heals, “Disappearance . . . makes a tiny, uncertain wound that grows a little larger every day.”
There are also several elusive characters who make appearances throughout the novel. After Tordo (T) leaves her, Verónica is hired to archive the papers of Marisa (Mx), the mother of Alonso (A). She is intrigued and somewhat smitten by him, but he, too, turns out to be hard to pin down. And her task of archiving turns into a tale of detection, trying to find the truth of the mysterious Marisa.
Bicecci’s writing can be captivating and her aperçus striking if a bit simple: “We’re all waiting for what we can’t see to finally appear.” The diagrams, often Venn, and other illustrations serve to underscore her points. But some of the risks she takes, such as writing sections in nonsense syllables or pursuing words down definitional rabbit holes, may leave the reader more frustrated than delighted. - Rita D. Jacobs

Written language is pretty neat. For a few millennia now, humans have used writing to communicate complex ideas and emotions. And yet, we’ve all encountered a time when we felt like our language was inadequate to the task of expressing ourselves. Whether it be sadness, love or any other complicated feeling, there are concepts that aren’t given proper justice through written words. So what do we do? Well, it’s this problem that is at the heart of Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s debut novel Empty Set.
The novel, which was released in English by Coffee House Press on Feb. 6, is about a 22-year-old woman living in Mexico named Verónica. The story takes place as she’s caught between the breakup of one relationship and the false start of another. The relationship at the center of the story, however, is between Verónica and her mother, who vanished years ago when the family was living in Argentina. The largely unspoken assumption is that the mother was "disappeared" by the government during the Civic-Military Dictatorship of Argentina. The repercussions of this loss weigh heavily on the lives of both Verónica and her brother. As Verónica tries to start new relationships and eventually visits her childhood home in Argentina, her mother is physically gone but emotionally present.
Notably, the protagonist shares a name with the author, which suggests that the novel may not be entirely fictional. When asked about this in an interview with The Rumpus, Gerber Bicecci responded: “I would lie if I say it is all autobiography, but I’ll be lying too if I say that everything is fiction. It is amphibian.” In any case, the ambiguous truth of the narrative makes it all the more layered.
Empty Set is fragmentary, with the chronology out of order and various sections written in different styles. Some chapters are letters, some are straight prose and almost all of them are a mix of words and drawings (the author is often described as “a visual artist who writes”). These drawings are used for a variety of reasons. One chapter details Verónica and her romantic interest, Alonso, walking through a museum. The drawings reproduce the art they’re looking at in between the text of their conversation. It combines the verbal and the visual, allowing the conversation to flow without lengthy descriptions of the art breaking it up.
Most of the drawings, however, are set-theory diagrams that visually represent the human relationships in the novel. Admittedly, that might not sound super exciting, so bear with me. The drawings play a pivotal role in this story because they allow for an analytical view of the relationships. Each important character is given a letter to represent them in the diagrams, so Alonso, for example, shows up in the text as “Alonso (A).” When two people are romantically involved, they are shown as two overlapping circles, forming a Venn diagram. And when someone has disappeared, like Verónica’s mother, their circle appears both inside and outside the “universe,” present but not. Gerber Bicecci plainly states one of her reasons for using diagrams in the text: “Visualized in this way, ‘from above,’ the world reveals relationships and functions that are not completely obvious.”
The book was translated from Spanish into English by Christina MacSweeney, who has worked on a number of other Latin American texts in her career, and her skill is commendable here. In a moment of transparency, the end of this book includes an explanation as to the use of “I” in this book. As mentioned, the important characters that appear are followed by a parenthetical letter so you’ll know how they’re represented in the diagram. When translating this book, MacSweeney wasn’t sure how exactly “I” should appear, because “I(I)” may look strange. Then there’s the issue that in Spanish, the word for I, “yo,” is optional. Instead of saying yo veo, “I see,” a Spanish-speaker can just say “veo” and it means the same thing. This text settled on representing it as just “(I)” and avoiding the pronoun whenever possible, which is fine but can be confusing.
In all honesty, the book’s main appeal is the drawings, and it makes you wonder whether they’re a gimmick or not. Sometimes, the images rehash what has been written in the chapter, which can feel redundant. Still, the mathematical view of the protagonist’s internal life allows for insight into the character that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Verónica tries to understand her problems through these drawings, and that allows us to understand her better. On one hand, it seems like the character is separating herself from her emotions with the diagrams, because it’s an almost mathematical way for her to view her relationships. On the other, her drawings draw on deep emotions that are inexpressible in words.
Gerber Bicecci writes, “There are — I’m certain of this — things that can’t be told in words.” In Empty Set, language fails where emotions overpower logic, where losing someone feels like losing a piece of ourselves and where we are caught in situations too complex to wrap our heads around. When words can’t help us, we can feel trapped in our own heads. In this novel, Gerber Bicecci uses drawings to reach out of this wordless state and is able to share her inner life with the world. The communication of ideas is not without flaws here, but that’s kind of the point. - Thomas Moore Devlin

Ms. Gerber Biecci self-identifies as a visual artist who writes and that makes a lot of sense for the person that would eventually write Empty Set. That said, Empty Set works as a novel that her art background elevates tremendously.
A rough approximation of the novel's plot: the narrator, an Argentinean woman named Verónica, is imprisoned by stuck-in-a-cycle living and under-employment, and begins to make her way out of depression. I'm not sure to what extent the fiction is true to Ms. Gerber Biecci's life. The diagrams allow the book to show and not tell in two different mediums, which helps the work hit the desired notes better.
As far as I know, this approach is not entirely unique. In a completely different medium (Western comics), Johnathan Hickman enjoyed significant (perhaps life-changing?) success by letting stylized charts and diagrams carry flavor or information in his comics. But what separates Empty Set is the visual repetition of images, which reveal more and more layers the deeper I read through the book and Ms. Gerber Biecci's execution.
One of the repeating images that sticks with me is the tree rings, though given what happens further in the book, these could also represent a downward spiral. I enjoyed how Verónica's side-job organizing a dead woman's belongings is a neat metaphor for tree rings, while also introducing another part of the book: the establishment of a new cycle to ensnare Verónica.
For a self-described visual artist that writes, I get the impression that if Biecci decided to write a "pure" novel, she would achieve artistic success. Empty Set nails a sharp melancholy. Admittedly, the book starts slow, but after the halfway point, the engine kicks in. I completed the book in an hour-ish late night commute. When the lights dimmed and a streetlamp flickered, I saw myself in Verónica's shoes, able to see the cycles of her life and the lives before her, trying valiantly to break those encircling rings. - Jim Hepplewhite

Veronica Gerber Bicecci’s debut novel, second book and her first translated into English, Empty Set (Conjunto vacío), has multiple dualities—the verbal and the visual, the analytic and the emotional, autobiography and fiction—that aspire to convey ineffable sums greater than their constituent parts.
Gerber Bicecci’s bio describes her as a visual artist who writes. The text of her novel is accompanied by conceptual line drawings described by other critics as Thurberesque though lacking Thurber’s humor, some of which are calligraphic, others dendrochronological, but most are geometric Venn diagrams.
Names in the text are followed by initials in parentheses that also appear in the drawings on geometric shapes corresponding to particular characters. The text and accompanying drawings are presented in one- to four-page chapters/sections that read like poems (with lots of negative space) or linked short stories.
Gerber Bicecci takes a scientific, analytical approach to organize emotional events and states. In an interview in The Rumpus she says “for me the risk was to make readers to be moved by a ‘math’ diagram.” In the novel her namesake narrator relates, “It’s in the boundaries that everything becomes invisible. There are things, I’m sure, that can’t be told in words. There are things that only occur between the white and the black, and very few people can see them.”
As for the events related in Gerber Bicecci’s novel, in the same interview she says, “I would lie if I say it is all autobiography, but I’ll be lying too if I say that everything is fiction. It is amphibian.” That places her in the company of other writers of meta-fiction, such as Ben Lerner (whose novels 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station are also reviewed at NYJB).
Like the author the novel’s first-person narrator Veronica is the Mexican daughter of Argentinian political exiles. The central event that predates the 2003 non-linear narrative occurs in 1976 when Veronica is an adolescent: her mother decides to return to Argentina, despite her own parents’ plea that she stay in Mexico, after which she disappears, or more likely, was disappeared. “I’ve probably never been so alone as when Mom (M) disappeared. There was no time to stop and think about it.”
And yet loneliness is identified in hindsight. The paragraph from which the preceding quote is found begins:
“We always realize things afterwards. Loneliness, for example. It’s not when we think we’re alone, or when we feel abandoned. That’s something different. Loneliness is invisible, we go through it unconsciously, without knowing. At least that’s the sort I’m talking about. It’s a kind of empty set that installs itself in the body, in language, and makes us unintelligible. It appears unexpectedly when we look back, there in a moment we hadn’t noticed before.”
The loss and abandonment Veronica felt when her mother disappeared is echoed in her adult life when her boyfriend Tordo (T) leaves her for another woman. But a test case or control sample presents itself when Veronica takes a job organizing and packing the belongings of Marisa (Mx), a deceased writer and Argentinian exile whose own adult children either lack the time or want to avoid the task’s associated emotional pain. Among Marisa’s belongings Veronica finds correspondence from someone identified only by the letter S, the final item of which is a 1977 telegram in which S affirms,
“I know I’ll see you again STOP/Love confirms the circularity of the universe STOP/S STOP”
That’s probably just the sort of artifact from their mother’s private life her children do not want to see. Veronica finds it “spine chilling.” Veronica’s contact person on the job is Marisa’s son Alonso(A) with whom she becomes romantically involved.
Veronica and her brother refer to their childhood home in Mexico City as “the bunker.” On a visit to Argentina she observes,
“Grandma (G)’s house is suspended in time. It’s also stuck in the moment my grandparents last saw Mom (M). The house in Ipona and the bunker: a pair of found mirrors. The reflection becomes infinite. And the infinite is an eternally empty set.”
Empty Set invites its readers to both approach its imagery empathically and simultaneously view it with critical perspective. Fans of elliptical experimental fiction will welcome the challenge. An afterward by translator Christina MacSweeney (with drawings by the author) explains some of the challenges posed by Gerber Bicecci’s Spanish and MacSweeney’s choices, such as dropped pronouns. - David Cooper

Verónica dreams of reordering time. Living in a Mexico City apartment with her brother, she envisions “the past in a future so distant we never reach the moment of confronting it.” Though she shares “the bunker” with her sibling, she is still isolated and alone, trying to find a job and dealing with the disappearance of her mother. Empty Set, Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s novel, charts and diagrams Verónica’s solitary path.
Told in fragments, a number of things happen: Verónica breaks up with her visual artist boyfriend, who had a tattoo of himself pictured from far away, walking on a high wire; she is hired to organize the correspondence and writings of a deceased female author, and becomes interested in her son; she travels to New York, and to Argentina, where her mother was born; and she mathematically muses on the interactions and organizations of her life and the lives of those around her. Many of these events overlap, metaphorically and literally: for example, the frustrated female author whose work and correspondence Verónica collates shares a background with Verónica’s own mother, as both were refugees from Pinochet dictatorship; and her trips north and south raise similar feelings of loneliness. Characters appear and reappear—or perhaps, it seems, they may have just disappeared.
Full of contradictions, Verónica, to quote Whitman, contains multitudes. She writes love notes with the letters scrambled, but is scared about being misunderstood; she hides from images of her ex-boyfriend’s new inamorata, but sees the new woman everywhere. She finds refuge in eclectic pursuits, like dendrochronology. The world around her is indifferent, which seems to its default setting: “It’s surprising how little it takes to make the whole world believe your life is like everyone else’s.,” she narrates. Her alienation is both physical and existential. Verónica, it seems, is grasping but coming up only with air:
We always realize things afterwards. Loneliness is invisible, we go through it unconsciously, without knowing it. At least that’s true of the sort that I am talking about, it’s a kind of empty set that installs itself in the body, in language, and makes us unintelligible.
Gerber Bicecci’s writing is both existential (“We’re all waiting for what we can’t see to finally appear”) and sharply observational (one character “had a sad expression, but he laughed at anything and everything”). Christina MacSweeney’s translation ably renders Gerber Bicecci’s isolation, which in this particular case was complicated by a unique issue in her style. Addressing this, novel contains an afterward about “The I Problem,” which involved whether to use brackets—each character in the novel has an attaching symbol, such as “Mother[M] or “Tordo[T]”—when the novelist uses the word “I.” (Of course, in Spanish, it is possible, grammatically, to omit “Yo” altogether, but not quite in English.) Obviously thought through, the translator’s omission of “I” as much as possible in this translation underscores Verónica’s lack of self, perhaps a product of her mother’s disappearance. MacSweeney’s experience with these types of fragmentary novels shows; she also translated Valeria Luiselli’s wonderfully outré The Story of My Teeth.
Equally important to all of the words, however, are the illustrations and diagrams in Empty Set—including figures and representations of the characters in diagram form. As described on her website, Bicecci is an “artista que escribe,” or an “artist who writes”—the order being essential (somewhat similarly, Verónica’s ex-boyfriend is described as visual artist who would have preferred to be a writer).
It’s natural that with Empty Set, she has created a hybrid of two art forms: the book is littered with figures mapping the interconnections of the characters and demonstrating things the written word cannot quite detail. What could have been gimmicky isn’t, as the visuals are a fundamental part of the storytelling, and essential to its deeper layers. (A few times they are also funny.) About a third of the way through the novel, in fact, there is a rather complicated series of what best can be described as Venn diagrams—some shaded or partially shaded, some with dotted lines and some with solid lines—each representing various characters in the book, accompanied by the text, “Here’s where this story ends.” Of course, the order of what happens in this novel is only part of the puzzle the reader has to assemble, but this layer makes for the sort of fun one has trying to work out a Rubik’s Cube.
Empty Set is an ontological novel about ordering—in a broad sense—and about systems, and applying those to our lives. “There’s no recognizable cause,” Veronica states early on, “only effects.” A way of explaining our lives is that we create sets, we are part of sets, and if we view our lives in such a manner, we see how fundamental they are, just as sets are fundamental to mathematics and mathematical proofs. “A secret is like an invisible subset,” Gerber Bicecci writes, in one of the metaphor’s extensions. This way of looking at the world makes up the foundation for a great novel, in both senses of a good story and as something starkly original. - Greg Walklin

Originally written in Spanish, Empty Set by visual artist Verónica Gerber Bicecci (and translated by Christina MacSweeney) is a wonderfully beguiling novel that demonstrates the beautiful similarities between language and math. The narrator, also named Verónica, loses, finds and loses love, while wrestling with the disassembly of her nuclear family. To understand better why people come into her life only to leave, she seeks to find patterns in her relationships, drawing from algebra and geometry, astronomy and the science of tree-ring analysis.
Bicecci documents Verónica's search for meaning through a series of fragmented passages and drawings that build and climax like a more traditional text, but that remain enigmatic enough to leave several moments up for interpretation. That's not to say the novel is difficult to read. On the contrary, Bicecci's sentences (and MacSweeney's translation) run as clear as spring water and are a joy to take in, from start to finish.
Empty Set is also brimming with observations that verge on existential philosophy: "Our story began several times and only ended once, that's why it's impossible to understand which of the beginnings was the one that ended." Here and throughout the novel, Bicecci demonstrates a talent for telling a familiar love story in astounding new ways.
Empty Set is only Bicecci's second book, and first translated into English, but it sets a new standard for excellence in experimental fiction. MacSweeney's translation work, which had to account for Bicecci's drawings as well as her prose, is equally admirable. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A beautiful experimental novel in translation about a woman who uses math and science to determine why she loses the people she loves. -

It feels rare these days to encounter books so fundamentally different, fundamentally unique from those encountered across a lifetime of reading. Several years ago, I heard rumblings from a friend connected to the Mexican literary world about a different book, one that had managed to combine a quiet, poetic elegance with drawings and sketches to tell the tale of a young woman navigating the singular worlds of Mexico City, love, and memory. I spent a day navigating the bookstores of that same city in search of Conjunto Vacío. Days later, in a different Mexican city, I finally found it.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Empty Set, inspired and influenced by writers who also drew and artists who also wrote, finds the meridian points of life in the space where words fail to convey the whole spectrum of emotion. In Empty Set, Verónica Gerber Bicecci has found a seemingly new and fascinating way to tell and show us a vital story of modern loneliness, exile, and imagination.
I sat down with Verónica in a breezy café just below her art studio and writing space at the edge of Mexico City’s Parque las Americas to talk about Empty Set, artists who write, writers who draw, and much, much more.
Geoff Bendeck

Geoff Bendeck (GB): You call yourself a visual artist who also writes. Why not the other way around?
Verónica Gerber Bicecci (VGB): Well, that’s what I studied: visual arts, and that’s why visual arts go first. (Laughs.)
GB: Have you always written and drawn together?
VGB: Somehow I realized they went together when I started writing seriously. When I studied visual arts I always used words and it was a very big problem. It is not easy to use words with images without putting them in a hierarchy. So when I understood that I wanted to find other relationships between words and images, I began to call myself a visual artist who writes. This means that, as many other artists, I use a book in the same way I use a wall or a performance.
GB: Can you tell me about your childhood, growing up in Mexico City?
VGB: I spend a great part of my childhood playing with a friend in Parque Mexico, in the Condesa neighborhood. I’m the daughter of a family of exiles. The environment I had at home was different from the one I had at school: different food, different words, different ways of writing out mathematical equations! My parents came to Mexico in 1976 because of the dictatorship in Argentina. They finished their degrees in psychology, which was a very suspicious field of study, and they decided to come to Mexico.
GB: It seems to be a common story among writers in Mexico City, like Roberto Bolaño escaping the dictatorship in Chile, or the Colombian writers escaping the violence there.
VGB: Well I wasn’t persecuted, I was born exiled. But yes, Mexico had a schizophrenic foreign policy (now especially brutal as concerns Central America): In the seventies, Mexico received migrants from the dictatorships in South America but, at the same time, it repressed its own people. Many intellectuals exiled from Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile came and still live in Mexico.
GB: How do you think that has shaped Mexican literature?
VGB: Many of them became teachers. You can ask any person who has studied at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), and I’m sure they all had at least one exiled or migrant teacher. And the classroom is the place where collective transformation occurs, I think.
GB: How has Mexico shaped you as a visual artist and writer? How has it affected your identity?
VGB: Well, I was born here and everything that has happened to me has happened here. I’m completely Mexican. But it’s also true that every time I go to Argentina I feel like there is something of mine there, but I don’t know exactly what. Empty Set is an attempt to understand what it means to be born exiled and how exile manifests itself many years after being exiled.
GB: So much of Empty Set seems to play with identity and what is missing in that sense from our inner lives. Early in the book you say, and I’m paraphrasing, “At what moment do we stop being the person we were before?” It is simple and yet heartbreaking. How do you apply that to yourself, especially after the acclaim Empty Set received in Latin America?
VGB: I am a different person now than the one who wrote Empty Set. At least I hope so! But it is interesting what you say about identity in the book: when you are born exiled it forces you to think about identity in one way or another.
GB: Was Empty Set an experimental novel of sorts?
VGB: I’m not even sure if Empty Set is a novel. From my way of seeing things, it is an art project, like any other I’ve done before. The thing with this piece is that it comes in a book and you have to read it instead of going to an exhibition space. So, to me, it’s an artifact in the medium of a book.
Empty Set is also about trying to combine writing and drawing—to understand how to tell a story using drawings, to tell things that words say differently. Or to use the drawings to see something you can’t see in another way—to have another perspective of the story through diagrams. So: I like to think of Empty Set as an in situ installation in the field of literature, and this is not my idea—a fantastic curator, Roselin Rodríguez, described it this way.
GB: You chose to name your narrator Verónica, to follow in that kind of self-ironic, autobiographical novel tradition of giving your narrator your name and playing with the audience’s perception of what exactly that means in reference to truth. It makes me smile that Coffee House is your publisher, because the novel actually reminded me a lot of Leaving the Atocha Station. They are, of course, very different books, but there is a playful existentialism and meandering to them both—with themes of loneliness and absence. Empty Set is very playful. I can see where you are smiling as you write certain scenes.
VGB: Yes. I thought of the meaning of my own name. Verónica means “true image.” And it was perfect for a character who was trying to see what she can’t.

GB: There seem to be a lot of counterweights in the story, people pushing and pulling against each other. Argentina and Mexico, Buenos Aires and DF pull against each other in the eyes of Verónica as she is going back and forth on her trip. Verónica and Tordo, Alonso and Verónica, Marissa and S. Empty Set’s form is experimental, it doesn’t go in a straight line. It uses many different forms. How did you envision this novel? Did this book take on a life of its own?
VGB: I didn’t have everything clear from the beginning, not even the basic story. All these mirrors that you see between the characters and situations were something that happened without me thinking about it at first, I began to work on those when I realized they were happening. With the letters and drawings, I went back and forth from my computer to my drawing desk, to see how I could make them work together. It was a mixed process by hand and computer, and it took a very long time. I figured out things as I went along.
GB: I was very entertained and moved by the lovemaking scene between Alonso and Verónica shown in drawings. How did that come about?
VGB: Well, I have to confess that I used the drawings to avoid writing scenes that would sound cheesy.
GB: Writing sex scenes is one of the hardest things to do in literature.
VGB: I think so. In this case it ended up being a sort of visual poem. I hope it works well!G: One of my favorite lines from the book was “We were two strangers helping each other cross the street.” The line reminded me about how books help us survive the darkness. What books and art have helped you to “cross the street”?
VGB: The Alexandria Quartet changed me a lot. Also, Borges has been very important for me. The artists I wrote about in Mudanza, my other book—Vito Acconci, Ulises Carrión, Sophie Calle, Oivind Fälshtrom, Marcel Broodthaers. There are many more. For example: Juan Luis Martínez, a Chilean who wrote La nueva novela. The Diary of Anne Frank was also very important to me. And The Little Prince.
GB: One section of Empty Set belongs to the character Marisa. We read letters that she writes to another character, S. At one point you say, “You’ll never know who S. is.” Can you tell me about the role of personal letters in your life and in Empty Set?
VGB: When I was twelve or so I got interested in my family history and I started writing long letters to my grandmother to ask her about it. She sent me lots of written stories, and so letters became a way of being close to her. They have been very important in my life. In Empty Set letters were the path to invent a private language between two characters. Or maybe that’s what letters always are!
GB: How was it working with Christina MacSweeney on the translation?
VGB: It was a beautiful process. To me translation is a process of creation, and I like saying that Christina wrote Empty Set in English instead of saying she translated it. I wanted Christina to appropriate the text as much as possible, and I think it really happened, so the book now has shared custody! -

The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Verónica Gerber Bicecci and Christina MacSweeney

Verónica Gerber Bicecci is a visual artist and writer. She has led workshops on visual writing, abstract writing, and mural writing in numerous institutions across Mexico, as well as courses in the theory of art and drawing in higher artistic education programmes. She is an editor with Tumbona Ediciones, a publishing cooperative with a catalogue that explores the intersections between literature and art, and coordinates the Seminario de Producción Fotográfica (photographic production seminar) at Centro de la Imagen.
Verónica Gerber Bicecci has published the books Mudanza (Moving Out, Ed. Auieo/ Taller Ditoria, 2010) and Conjunto vacío (Empty Set, Ed. Almadía, 2015). In other formats, her most recent pieces include "Los hablantes" (The Speakers, Museo Amparo, 2016, and MUAC, 2014), "Conferencia secreta" (Secret Lecture, Hay Festival Kells and Museo MACO Oaxaca, 2015; DePaul Univesity, 2014), "Poema invertido" (Inverted Poem, Museo Experimental El Eco, 2013), and "Biblioteca ciega" (Blind Library, Centro Cultural de España, 2012).
The artist has participated in interdisciplinary residences at OMI International Arts Center (US), Ucross Foundation (US), Santa Maddalena (Italy), and the Sommerakademie im Zentrum Paul Klee (Switzerland). She obtained a BA in visual arts from the ENPEG, “La Esmeralda” (Mexico’s national school of painting, sculpture, and printmaking), and an MA in art history from the UNAM. In 2013 she was awarded the third Aura Estrada prize for literature; and in 2014 she received an honorable mention in Mexico’s national award for essays about photography.