‘Multiple Choice’ by Alejando Zambra – A Fiction Disguised as a Multiple Choice Exam

 

Multiple Choice’ by Alejando Zambra  (2014)  – 101 pages     Translated by Megan McDowell

 

28588315‘Multiple Choice’ takes the form of a standardized aptitude test and consists of a series of multiple choice questions and answers.  Due to its unique format, I hesitate to call it a novel, but it definitely qualifies as a work of fiction.

The multiple choice questions that make up this work are grouped into the following five exam categories: 1) Excluded Term, 2) Sentence Order, 3) Sentence Completion, 4) Sentence Elimination, and 5) Reading Comprehension.

The exam is based on the actual Chilean academic aptitude test of 1993.  At that time right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet was still in power in Chile, and that fact permeates these multiple choice questions.

For example, in Question 2 you are supposed to mark the word whose meaning has no relationship to the heading or the other words listed.  Here is Question 2:

      2  Choice

            A. Voice
             B. One
             C. Decision  
             D.  Preference
             E.  Alternative

The correct answers are not listed.  My answer would be B, because if you have only ‘One’, you have no choice.  One dictator?  Frequently none of the choices is a good answer.  Some of the questions are impossible to answer.

As the test progresses, the questions get longer and longer until the last Reading Comprehension section where the questions are preceded by a text which itself almost amounts to a short story.  One of these texts is about a wedding party where the fact that divorce was illegal in then Pinochet Chile is discussed and reviled.  Chile was the only country in the world where divorce was illegal, and thus marriages could only be annulled.  Even if the couple had been married for many years, they had to lie in court that they had never lived together.

It was the Nixon administration of the United States that saddled Chile with the vicious incompetent dictator Augusto Pinochet.  It must strike Chileans as poetic justice that the people of the United States have now stuck themselves with Donald Trump.

The questions and the answers are usually either pointed or playful.  One of the sub-themes of this fiction appears to be the utter ridiculousness of these standardized tests.

This multiple choice exam is a clever idea for an experimental fiction.    Several reviewers brought up the works of David Markson as a comparison, but ‘Multiple Choice’ reminded me most of ‘Nazi Literature in the Americas’ by Zambra’s fellow Chilean writer now deceased, Roberto Bolaño.  Both works are sharply humorous yet highly political.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

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11 responses to this post.

  1. It sounds interesting and that it requires some thought and engagement to get much out of, which is no bad thing. Nice review.

    For some reason I thought Zambra was with Fitzcarraldo in the UK.

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    • Hi Max,
      As far as novels go, Multiple Choice is definitely toward the easy-to-read end which is not a bad thing. It does help know that Pinochet was the dictator of Chile during the time of the exam.

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  2. For me this was a little too gimmicky although I get the irony behind it.I felt that knowing a bit more about Chilean politics would have helped?

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    • Hi Annabel,
      I would agree with you that Multiple Choice is somewhat gimmicky. Notice I gave it only a ‘B’, and was not one of those several reviewers who gushed over it. I did like some of the humorous touches and some of the political scores settled.

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      • Good point on the local politics knowledge issue. I can see that might make a difference to the reader.

        The B sounds fair to be honest. One can get sucked in by the novelty of an unusual approach, but ultimately a book’s structure only takes you so far.

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        • Hi Max,
          For whatever reason, it seems that even the professional book reviewers are less rigorous than they used to be. A prime example for me are the reviews for Autumn by Ali Smith. I just finished it and thought it was quite lame compared to ‘How to be Both’, but the reviewers all claim she is in best form.

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          • If you’re a newspaper reviewer you’re never really going to get much grief for giving an Ali Smith a decent review. If you give it a middling or bad review though and everyone else gives it a good one, I can see how that might not look so good.

            I doubt anyone, or many anyway, consciously get influenced by stuff like that, but at some level there must be a weight of expectation as to the review that’s expected.

            Right now I’m coming rather to the conclusion that War and Peace is overrated. If I did this for a living I think that would be a brave position to take. Even as it is I’m expecting a bit of stick for it.

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            • I read War and Peace almost thirty years ago and didn’t think it was overrated at that time. I will be interested in reading your review though. I was probably caught up in the Napoleon history more than paying attention to literary values.
              Lately I received a tiny bit of static for giving ‘The Winter’s Tale’ by Shakespeare only a B+.
              It is difficult to trust a reviewer if they don’t occasionally hate a book.

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  3. I heard about this last year and wondered whether it would be a case of style over substance where you can admire the innovative idea but not necessarily enjoy the experience.

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