In this last subset of moments—the quick ones, the instants, the markers of some kind of change—perhaps there is something to understand about how we perceive time. The moment the wheel began rolling down a hill. The moment the woman finished her drink. The moment I woke up this morning. What are these moments? Are they singular, discrete? Are they all the same? When do they begin and end? How long is a moment?
Time, even in its most fiat-based forms, is a slippery beast that seems to defy our attempts to define, cage, contain, and regulate it. Bringing into focus something that is, at once, as precise and fuzzy as a moment means taking a closer look at what time is and how we understand it, through linguistic, scientific, neurological, and philosophical lenses.
Of all the wretched places to visit in New York, Planet Hollywood is king. The moldering eatery’s main entryway—beneath a colossal, glitzy sign that jostles for attention with Times Square’s other lurid neons—leads you to one of two elevators, their doors designed to mimic a subway car’s (as though the real and grimy thing were not a block or two away). One need not feast at a Planet Hollywood to know that the experience will be underwhelming and too expensive, that the earsplitting soundtrack will consist only of pop anthems and Disney theme songs, that there will be a weekly changing burger named the OMG! Burger, and that a visit to the gift shop will make you want to cry. A cursory search of online reviews confirms Planet Hollywood’s status as a dwindling brasserie chain attached to a substandard museum—a place that should no longer exist and yet seems to defy market logic. To quote a recent note on TripAdvisor, “The threat from dust falling from the above decorations was enough to put you off.”
But shortly after moving to America, and for reasons that now evade me, I began dining regularly—and with near-evangelical enthusiasm—at Planet Hollywood Times Square. (This is the city’s only branch, and it has lived here since 2000, after relocating from its original 1991 location on West 57th Street.) I have noshed on spinach dip served in a cocktail glass, and on a pizza whose pepperoni is glistening and wet. I have stopped in for drinks—some of the cocktails, by the way, involve bacon, some chocolate milk, and most have vaguely clever names like Eternal Sunshine, Hawaii Five Ohhh, There’s Something About Mary and Pineapple Express. A couple of titles are less divinely inspired, such as the Red Carpet Margarita. (Also available, for forty-two dollars a bottle, is Vanderpump Rosé, one of Lisa Vanderpump’s wines. If you actually want to get drunk, I recommend that—or a beer.)
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.”
Perhaps all this makes it seem like the novel is a political treatise, but it is Richard’s subtle transformation and Erpenbeck’s liquid prose style that make this book glow above and beyond the content. Erpenbeck’s mastery of language and image ripples through her pages.