Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s latest book is a novelty — it’s a novel written in the form of a multiple choice exam. The premise sounds like a joke and seems to resign the book to failure at first look. One wonders can he pull it off? Can he sustain the conceit for an entire book?
The short answer is that he does. And brilliantly so. “Multiple Choice,” the fifth of Zambra’s books to be translated into English, is a strikingly original, funny and moving novel. At a little over 100 pages, a characteristic length for Zambra, it’s a firework of a book in the mode of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and Cortazar's “Hopscotch.” The book is an act of remembrance, a formal experiment, metafictional rift on education and Chilean society, a comic game of literary interpretation, a political critique and a parody of standardized testing — all in one. Few books can do so much with so little.
The book repurposes the college entrance exam under Pinochet — the Academic Aptitude Exam — becoming not just formally innovative but politically charged. It’s based on the test from 1993, the year Zambra, who loves to play with the ambiguities between fiction and life, took it. He recycles a piece of dreaded bureaucratic material and transforms it into a magnificent parody of the inadequacy of standardized testing. As a teacher says to his former students near the end of the book, “you weren’t educated, you were trained.” Zambra’s book is an exercise in this miseducation.
“Multiple Choice” is a series of vignettes of life in Chile under the Pinochet regime. Zambra tells the stories of everyday citizens during the dictatorship in the strangest forms. The book is divided into five tests: Excluded Term, Sentence Order, Sentence Completion, Sentence Elimination and Reading Comprehension. Zambra makes great use out of the narrative possibilities that these forms bring.
Zambra’s novel risks being merely clever but overcomes it. Because of its brevity (could anyone read a 500-page book in the same form?) and Zambra’s ability to realize characters almost immediately upon entrance, the book works well both as a series of revelations about Chilean life and as a comic enactment of the standardized test.
In Reading Comprehension, which consists of three different reading tests and is the finest section of the book, we get the stories of the Covarrubias, who cheat on the college entrance exam so that both can get into the best college; of a recently married couple in Chile, where divorce was illegal until 2004; and of a father who writes a letter to his son in which he expresses regret that his son was ever born. These are all good stories on their own, and when reading, one forgets they’re part of a test.
In the second section, about the married couple, for example, Zambra shows his acerbic wit. The fourth question reads: “According to the text, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the nation of Chile was: A) Conservative in its morality and liberal in its economy. B) Conservative in its inebriety and artificial in all things holy. C) Innovative in its levity and literal in its tragedy. D) Aggressive in its religiosity and conjugal in its wizardry. E) Exhaustive in its chicanery and indecisive in its celerity.” It’s a 90-question test, but somehow they’re almost all this good.