In darkened rooms around the world, Mexican visual artist Verónica Gerber Bicecci occasionally delivers a “secret lecture.” According to her website, it’s a performance piece that involves “illegible” index cards, but to respect the “secret nature” of the experience, the lecture has never been recorded.
Bicecci’s debut novel, “Empty Set,” is full of secrets, too, some of which remain hidden after the final page. It’s a fascinating puzzle of a book that I can’t stop thinking about — an experimental mix of prose, diagrams and literary artifacts that is also, somehow, breathlessly plotted.
The metafictional narrator, Verónica, lives with her brother in Mexico City. She has the peculiar habit of thinking in mathematical sets — groupings, basically — including people and places, which she designates with parentheses and labels in accompanying illustrations.
“The space Mom(M) should have occupied was empty,” Verónica writes when her mother mysteriously disappears from the apartment they share. “She’d crossed a frontier neither my Brother(B) nor I knew how to pass over.”
This disappearance is the central mystery of the novel. Grieving, Verónica and her brother keep Mom(M)’s apartment “suspended in time,” even as it begins to rot. Seven years later, when Verónica attempts to repair a moldy wall, she becomes obsessed with the tree rings visible in the plywood.
“I’d like to invent a science that investigates how a pine plywood board disorders time,” she writes before painstakingly painting each ring with a black brush, “two or three grain lines a day.”
The story I’ve described so far is linear, but the book doesn’t actually unfold that way. Like the tree rings in Verónica’s plywood — like a scrambled set — Bicecci disorders the novel’s narrative threads so that each brief chapter jumps around in time and space. In another writer’s hands, that kind of structure would be disorienting, even obnoxious, but Bicecci pushes Verónica forward in an emotional arc instead of relying on the arrow of time.
The heart of the book emerges when Verónica takes a job archiving the papers of a deceased writer, “Marisa(Mx),” who — just like Verónica’s mother — fled Argentina in 1976 to escape a violent military dictatorship that killed thousands of people in real life.
“When an event is inexplicable, a hole is created somewhere,” Verónica writes. “Empty Set” is a book crafted from such holes — crafted so well, in fact, that when Verónica discovers a secret in the final pages, the resulting domino effect in your brain will make a second reading inevitable.
Adam Morgan is editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books and a contributing writer for Chicago magazine.