Quick: how many apps on your phone do you use to organize your day? Alarms help you fall asleep and wake up on time; step counters ensure you hit your daily fitness goal; Venmo pays a friend back for lunch—at a place you chose for its five-star Yelp reviews. For most of us, there is no part of our daily routine that doesn’t have a corresponding app to analyze our behavior and guarantee our time is spent efficiently. The irony of all this is just how much time we spend on our phones, counting and comparing: by some estimates, more than 120 hours each month.
This growing obsession lies at the heart of Beyond Measure, a sharply observed and frequently engaging new book by Rachel Z. Arndt. Across 19 brief essays, Arndt probes our insatiable need to reduce our lives to numbers, from gym routines to dating apps, sleep cycles to body weight. Such a book could have easily settled for the low-hanging fruit of Fitbits and social media, drawn some shallow conclusions and called it a day. But Arndt casts her gaze further, seeking answers in subjects that swerve and unfold in unexpected ways. Her participation in a judo match becomes a meditation on the art of waiting, while a journal-esque narrative of the daily commute delves not only into the deadening monotony of routine, but also, poignantly, loneliness.
For something deeper haunts the pages of these often personal essays: the specter of anxiety, the fear of vulnerability, the messy slide into what Matt Berninger once termed “the unmagnificent lives of adults.” Success, progress, happiness—these things are nebulous at best, let alone in our increasingly chaotic world. And what’s all this counting but an attempt to show some semblance of Having It Together? “If measuring the present is a way to control the future,” Arndt writes, “then measuring the future, maybe, is a way to control the present.” Why risk the awkwardness of a blind date when Tinder can provide safe, “data-driven answers to precise and emotionless questions”? Why leave productivity and alertness to chance when Adderall can eliminate “the disorder of a day”? The numbers don’t lie, after all.
But even these solutions are fraught. We’ve internalized the idea that statistics transcend interpretation, removing the uncertainty “caused by bias, environment, and self-reflection.” Yet we all know that humans are too complex to be whittled down to mere algorithms—and it is then that numbers, the supposed balm of anxiety, become its source. “When should I trust how I feel, and when should I trust how the measurements say I feel?” Arndt frets after a medical diagnosis. “If they’re not the same, what’s wrong, the measurements or my feelings?”
Arndt is a thoughtful, deliberate writer—one might say measured—infusing her prose with wit and flashes of poetic insight. (She is the assistant poetry editor at McSweeney’s.) And Beyond Measure is an elegantly structured book, its flow and recurring motifs reminiscent of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. What’s missing, though, is something like a coup de grâce, a moment when the collection connects its various dots to reveal the bigger picture—and thus elevate its 19 interwoven essays from a clever conceit to a profound, overarching point about the way we’ve chosen to live our lives.
For as the book’s title suggests, Arndt raises a more troubling question: what is lost in our constant counting and quantifying? Late in the book, Arndt addresses the “structured and artificial femininity” at the intersection of housework and women’s bodies. Objects once built for individuals have since been standardized to sizes “based on simplified ideals, not reality,” all in the name of efficient production: ovens standardized to the height of a yardstick, clothing scaled to bust size alone. “Weight and age and so much of what women are taught to care about are just numbers,” Arndt notes elsewhere, “but inevitably they combine [to] become a representation of a woman, one step removed.” This, of course, is not limited to femininity: how many of us have skipped past a Tinder profile for not fitting our expectations, or a news article for being too long? Therein lies the irony: that our obsession with measuring personal success has led to a world that values numeric averages and conformity above all, our joys and frustrations and contradictions reduced to a data point. “My weight, in the morning,” Arndt writes, “lacks texture.”
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If Beyond Measure presents a world overwhelmed by numbers, Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Empty Set reads like its inverse. What of the things we can’t quantify? Can we write an equation for absence? Diagram a disappearance? Trace the arc of memory? Within the fabric of this hypnotically original novel, patterns and diagrams serve not to obscure our anxieties, but to make sense of them: to assign them a shape, a name. A reason. As the book’s narrator, also named Verónica, explains:
Venn diagrams are the tools of sets. [They teach us] to form communities, reflect collectively, to discover the contradictions of language. Visualized in this way, ‘from above,’ the world reveals relationships and functions that are not completely obvious.
Little in Empty Set is obvious. Nimbly translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, the book is a photographic negative of a novel, a patchwork of holes and missing characters. Verónica’s mother has vanished without explanation. Her boyfriend has left her for another woman. Verónica, hollowed out, holes herself up in her mother’s abandoned apartment and takes a job organizing the archives of a deceased writer, whose correspondence includes a stack of love letters signed by a mysterious “S” and a set of photos whose subjects have all been cut out. In her free time, she turns to diagrams and the study of dendrochronology—the science of tree rings—in an attempt to understand and reorder the fractured pieces of her life. “Wonder what my life would look like inside a tree trunk,” she muses, “what all those lines, knots, and circumferences would mean. How a set of truncated outsets, an abrupt ending, or a disappearance would be written in that language.”
Gerber Bicecci describes herself as a “visual artist who writes,” and the pages of Empty Set are dotted with sketches, graphs, and Venn diagrams that attempt to capture both the “visible universe” of Verónica’s life and the invisible space beyond—the space her mother, her ex-boyfriend, the unseen “S” inhabit. (“We’re constantly drawing something we can never manage to see completely,” Verónica observes, capturing the conundrum at the heart of the book. “We only have one side, an edge of our own history, and the rest is hidden.”) Even the novel’s structure is visual, its narrative shattered apart into lines and scrambled fragments—a device that ingeniously mirrors its exploration of time and memory.
Beyond Measure posits that we use numbers to shield against the unknown. And yet Empty Set is wholly preoccupied with the unknown: unfinished lives, unresolved stories, secrets and codes and jumbled clues. Perhaps, it suggests, the difference between explicable and inexplicable is only a question of order. If seen “from above,” through charts and graphs and diagrams, we can begin to make sense of the things that seem to defy logic. But then again, even Empty Set is a puzzle that refuses to give up all of its secrets, a mystery with no obvious answer. Can diagrams reveal something about the nature of grief—a function, a reason, a remedy? Maybe. Or maybe some things are beyond measure, our carefully drawn sets nothing more than meaningless doodles: circles within circles, lines falling off the page, arrows leading only to more arrows.
Reviewed by Will Preston