Multiple Choice

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:

A. backlist
B. checklist
C. playlist
D. shitlist
E. novelist

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.

This entry was posted in Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Multiple Choice

  1. Jeanne says:

    I couldn’t like this book, so I gave it to a friend who grew up in South America (mostly Bolivia) to see what she would think of it. Haven’t heard anything from her yet; it’s been three months.

  2. Stefanie says:

    The book intrigues me but I haven;t decided if I would like to read it yet. I will definitely keep it in mind should I feel in the mood for something especially experimental!

  3. buriedinprint says:

    There was a skills test in Lauren Davis’ novel The Empty Room (she is seeking a different kind of employment, experiencing a crisis of sorts, and being creatively-stifled having longed to be a writer but not having managed to realise that goal) which the main character takes at a temp agency and there was no answer key for it in the book; I am still haunted by one of the seemingly-unanswerable questions. This one might drive me crazy!

  4. I liked it a lot, even though I felt like there had to be a lot that I missed. It wasn’t exactly like a novel in the way that I’m used to, but it was an enjoyable book-shaped thing, anyway. I want to reread it too!

  5. Heather says:

    I liked the excerpt of this that appeared in The New Yorker a few years ago, but haven’t decided if it would work for me as a whole book or not. I’m intrigued enough that I probably will read it at some point.

    • Teresa says:

      The nice thing is, it’s very short, so even if it doesn’t work entirely, it doesn’t take long to read. And if you liked the excerpt, chances are you’ll like enough of this to make it worth your while.

  6. Mary P says:

    And if you liked the excerpt, chances are you’ll like enough of this to make it worth your while. I’m intrigued enough that I probably will read it at some point.

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s