This book by Chilean author Alejandro Zambra and translated by Megan McDowell is written in the form of a standardized test.
There’s a section where you have to choose the word that doesn’t relate in any way to the heading or the other words listed, like so:
Often, there’s no clear answer, not because the questions are difficult but because they’re unsolvable. But the wordplay is pretty amusing.
Other sections involve putting a series of sentences in the best order, filling in the blacks in incomplete sentences, eliminating sentences from a series of stories, and answering comprehension questions about a series of stories. In each case, readers are given a list of options, forcing you to choose from a set of sometimes unsatisfying options.
The point, in part, seems to be to show how multiple choice standardized tests can shut down creative thought, and it does here. When, for example, we’re asked to put a series of sentences in order, we might find that the most arresting version of the new, reimagined story isn’t even one of the options. Or all the options are equally appealing. Or all the options are exactly the same. In the sentence-elimination section, it might be possible to eliminate sentences that leave the sense of the story in place but lose some kernel of truth. And the reading comprehension section mixes basic, fact-based answers with answers that get at a deeper meaning and answers that may be literally accurate but miss the point.
The test, as it turns out, is impossible. Truth can’t be boiled down to a series of straightforward choices.
Many of the questions also get at elements of living under a dictatorship. Or so the reviews that I’ve read tell me. Pinochet’s name gets mentioned, so certainly that period of Chile’s history is on Zambra’s mind. But, to me, it’s about living in any sort of environment where you’re forced into impossible choices or where you can’t quite tell your whole story.
The form of this book interested me very much, but I’m still working out whether I actually liked it. My initial reaction was that I liked the concept more than the execution. But I think it could benefit from more than one reading. I’ve browsed through bits of it a second time, and it’s grown on me. But I’m still in my phase of preferring straighforward story-telling over experiments in form, so it may just not be a book I’m going to love right now.