‘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

 

 

‘Idaho’ by Emily Ruskovich – An American Gothic Novel

‘Idaho’ by Emily Ruskovich    (2016) – 305 pages

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The northwestern state of Idaho is not exactly a literary center in the United States although famous author Marilynne Robinson was born and grew up there before moving to Iowa.  From the novel ‘Idaho’, I get that northern Idaho is mostly rural with many rugged mountains, rivers, and wilderness areas providing a scenic backdrop.

‘Idaho’ is a strong haunting novel that will stay with you.  I do have some criticisms of the way the story is told, but these criticisms probably have most to do with the intense feelings that it provoked.

As the novel opens, Ann is a teacher in a school in northern Idaho.  The father of one of her students, Wade, stops by her classroom and is intrigued by Ann’s piano playing, and soon he is taking piano lessons from her.  One day Ann reads a newspaper account that Wade’s wife Jenny has murdered their 6 year old daughter May with an axe and the other 9 year old daughter June has run away to save herself.  Wade doesn’t show up for piano lessons for a few months, but then he comes back and Wade and Ann get married within the year.

They live on a mountain, and Wade makes knives for a living.  His ex-wife Jenny is locked up for life in prison.

The story is mostly told from the new wife Ann’s perspective.  She is of course intensely curious about this horrific event in the near past.  The story jumps around in its timeline in order to relate the full course of events.  In some of the chapters we are with Jenny in prison where she is hapless and affectless and eternally remorseful for what she has done.  She develops a friendship with fellow prisoner Elizabeth who has murdered two people.

One thing I should mention which is never explicitly stated in ‘Idaho’ is that the second wife Ann feels guilt that the beginning stages of her romance with Wade which occurred before the gruesome incident may have been a factor in setting Jenny off.  Emily Ruskovich is a much more subtle writer than I originally gave her credit for.  Later Ann must deal with Wade’s early onset dementia which begins in his early fifties.

For me, perhaps the weakest aspect of this strong novel is that we are never given a single good reason that the first wife Jenny would be capable of murdering her daughter with an axe. The novel does not answer the question, Why?  Perhaps the author Ruskovich is saying that some terrible crimes are just inexplicable.  Jenny is a seemingly fine person up to the time of the crime.  She is a fine person filled with remorse for all the years afterwards.  The murder comes out of nowhere.  There is a vagueness about the details and circumstances of the crime that I found irritating, since it is the central event of the novel.

But despite my reservation, I found ‘Idaho’ a compelling read that held my interest throughout .  I suggest you give it a chance in spite of my grade.

 

Grade:   B

 

‘Daisy Miller’ by Henry James – A Severe Reading Setback

‘Daisy Miller’ by Henry James  (1878) – 80 pages

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If you want to retain a good opinion of Henry James, don’t read ‘Daisy Miller’.   When you read this novella, you realize that it was written by a haughty snobbish upper class twit.   James’ total contempt for us common people shines through.

The story of Daisy Miller is told through the eyes of a twenty-seven year old man named only Winterbourne.  Winterbourne is an American who has plenty of real money, so he travels around with his aunt to only the finest hotels and resorts in Europe.   In the town of Vevey in Switzerland there is a hotel that is even grand enough for Winterbourne, “being distinguished from its upstart neighbors by an air both of luxury and maturity.”

There Winterbourne meets a rambunctious little American boy named Randolph who introduces him to his pretty older sister, Daisy Miller.

“They were wonderfully pretty eyes, and indeed Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair country-woman’s various features – her complexion, her hair, her nose, her ears, her teeth.  He had a great relish for feminine beauty.”    

Winterbourne is really attracted to Daisy, but first he must determine if her money and her behavior are worthy of his refined attention, so he hovers around Daisy for the rest of the novella.   By watching her, he determines that Daisy is kind of a free spirit, and of course Winterbourne severely criticizes her for that.

The Millers decide to relocate to Rome, Italy, and Winterbourne hears rumors about Daisy.

“The girl goes about alone with her foreigners.”

So Winterbourne immediately rushes to Rome where presumably he finds an even more luxurious and exclusive hotel, so that he can continue to hover around Daisy.  He finds out that the free spirit Daisy has gotten involved with an Italian guy called Giovanelli who claims to be a Count.  Winterbourne can tell just by looking at the guy that he doesn’t have any real money, so he pesters Daisy to ditch the Count.  Daisy doesn’t ditch the Italian Count, so soon she becomes a shame and an embarrassment to her entire hotel of snooty people.

Of course in a Henry James story Daisy Miller must die for her sins, and she gets a mysterious fever.  After she dies, Winterbourne moves on to an even more posh elegant hotel in Geneva.

After reading a couple of other works by Henry James, I was just getting to the point where I could stomach his pompous pretentious ways, but I must report that ‘Daisy Miller’ was a severe setback in my regard for Henry James.

 

Grade:    C-

 

‘The Winter’s Tale’ by William Shakespeare – Dark Tragedy or Light Comedy or Romance?

‘The Winter’s Tale’ by William Shakespeare   (1610) – 108 pages

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“Merry or sad shall it be? As merry as you will. A sad tale’s best for winter.”

‘The Winter’s Tale’ is really two plays that fit together uncomfortably.  The first three acts are a dark tragedy involving a Sicilian King’s insane jealousy resulting in the deaths of his son and wife and banishment of his baby daughter.  The last two acts take place sixteen years later, and we are supposed to believe that the King has redeemed himself for those deaths through penitence to the point where his wife the Queen magically comes back to life.  This is one of the most hokey preposterous scenes in all of Shakespeare.

King Leontes of Sicily is having such a good time with his visiting old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia that he asks his wife Queen Hermione to convince his friend to stay.  Hermione does as her husband asks, but Leontes gets suspicious when he sees Hermione and Polixenes together that they are fooling around behind his back.  Hermione is pregnant, and Leontes immediately suspects that Polixenes is the father of the baby.  Soon Leontes becomes deranged with jealousy, and attempts to have one of his servants kill Polixenes, but instead the servant helps Polixenes escape back to Bohemia.   Leontes puts his wife in prison where she has the baby girl Perdita.  Leontes banishes the baby, and another servant takes the baby to Bohemia whereupon the servant is immediately eaten up by a bear.  A shepherd discovers the baby and takes her home.  Soon the king’s young son dies for missing his mother.  When Hermione hears the news, she collapses and soon she dies also.  Only then is Leontes filled with remorse.

So far, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is a dark tragedy, but act four begins in a much lighter mood sixteen years later in Bohemia.   The baby Perdita is now a beautiful young woman, and by some strange coincidence King Polixenes’ son Florizel has become enamored by her even though she is a lowly shepherd’s daughter.  Most of Act IV is taken up with the spring sheep-shearing festival where there is much singing and dancing.  A joke figure named Autolycus comes to the festival, and he plays a similar hearty comedic role as Falstaff in Shakespeare’s historical plays. At this point we are far, far away from the earlier tragedy.

0c9fe2b07a411a2db90c3317d96162adA lot of plot ensues but by Act V we are back in Sicily.  The King Leontes has been pining away with regret for sixteen years, but now his banished daughter is back with her royal boyfriend from Bohemia, and both Kings watch as the couple gets married.   After the wedding they all go to see the statue of Queen Hermione that her best friend Paulina has made, and, wonder of wonders, it comes alive, and Leontes and Hermione are reunited.

I suppose there are two ways to look at ‘The Winter’s Tale’.  One way is that the tale is out-and-out preposterous.  The other is to view it as a case study in the magnificent power of redemption for King Leontes.   However I suspect that most modern audiences would find that King Leontes’ previous crimes were too heinous for him to be redeemed.

 

Grade:   B+

 

‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary’ by Edward Sorel – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary’ by Edward Sorel   (2016) – 165 pages

 

6a9a0ebe-ee9d-45eb-b81e-a7f24e19ade7img400I love Hollywood gossip, even gossip that is over eighty years old.  Here is the true story of Mary Astor, an early Hollywood starlet, with illustrations by cartoonist Edward Sorel.

The scandal was a court fight between Mary Astor and her divorced husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe for custody of their four year old daughter.  The court fight centered on Astor’s personal diary which she admitted documented her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman.  Her husband claimed the diary kept a tally of her many affairs, and that in it she actually rated the performances of her many lovers.  Astor claimed these additional rumors were untrue.  The trial and the diary became front page news in the newspapers and movie magazines of that time.

0b2e8b155dc410c2badea516a5ea0d38 ‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary’ actually tells the story of Mary Astor’s entire life.  She was born in 1906 and she started in the movies as a child star at age 14.  While she earned big money as a silent film star, her father took all the money and spent it extravagantly.  When she was only 17, the famous star and roué John Barrymore wanted her to be cast in his movie ‘Beau Geste’.  She had an affair with the much older Barrymore behind her parents’ back.  Later she starred with Clark Gable and became one of the biggest stars of that era.  She had a short marriage to movie director Kenneth Hawks (brother of director Howard Hawks) which ended when he was killed in a plane crash in 1930.

During the custody court hearings of 1936, Astor continued to film the movie ‘Dodsworth’ which became one of her biggest successes.  Here most famous role was in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ which was filmed in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart.  She died in 1987 at the age of 81.

mary_astorIn his account of Mary Astor’s life, Edward Sorel is imaginative yet a straight shooter in assigning praise and blame for the various escapades in Mary’s life.  Since Astor’s career and presumably her life were unhurt by the scandal, it is treated more as a human interest story than as a tragedy.   Sorel has had a lifelong fascination with Mary Astor dating back to 1965 when he discovered some old newspapers reporting her trial while replacing the linoleum in his kitchen.  His fascination with Mary Astor fuels our own fascination.

I found that Sorel’s many pictures enhanced the story and made Astor and her life and that era in Hollywood come alive for me.

 

 

 

 

Grade:    A

 

‘What Narcissism Means To Me’ by Tony Hoagland

‘What Narcissism Means To Me’ poems by Tony Hoagland   (2003) – 78 pages

 

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No, this is not an autobiography by Donald Trump.  Instead it is a fourteen year-old book of poems by Tony Hoagland.  Why did I read this? There are three reasons:   1) I was tremendously impressed with Hoagland’s book of poems from 2015, ‘Application for Release from the Dream   2)  This Narcissism title is one of the cleverest book titles that I have ever encountered, 3)  When I find a poet whose poems make sense to me and which I enjoy, I want to continue with their work.

I will start with some lines from the poem “Patience” in the book which are a quote from his girlfriend at the time who is “running wild, cutting loose in an epileptic fit of telling the truth”.  She gives him “a mixture of good advice and slow-acting poison” :

 

“Success is the worst possible thing that could happen

                                       to a man like you,” she said,

“because the shiny shoes, and flattery

                                        and the self-

lubricating slime of affluence would mean

you’d never have to face your failure as a human being.” 

Now this is some really mean criticism this guy gets from this girlfriend, and I hope he didn’t wind up marrying her.  But these lines did win me over to the poet’s side, because I also have gotten this kind of severe criticism from an old girlfriend in the past.  I would call this irrevocable criticism.  Hoagland ends the poem with the following lines:

“I knew that if I could succeed at being demolished, I could succeed at anything.”

These lines do show two facets of the poet’s style; the poems are conversational and casual, yet they deal with strong emotions.

Now that I’ve read two books of poems by Tony Hoagland, which of the two did I like the best?  I do believe that the later collection,  ‘Application for Release from the Dream , is the stronger more direct work, but still nearly every poem in this earlier book, ‘What Narcissism’, has lines that I like.

I will finish with the first six lines from the poem “How It Adds Up”:

“There was the day we swam in a river, a lake, and an ocean.

And the day I quit the job my father got me.

And the day I stood outside the door,

And listened to my girlfriend making love

To someone obviously not me, inside,

And I felt strange because I didn’t care.” 

I wonder if it was his same girlfriend in both poems.

 

 

Grade:   A-         

 

‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink – An Over-The-Top Gross-Out Novel

 

‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink   (2016) – 288 pages

 

e7e56acf-15b3-4e0b-9263-6ffb8841489aimg400I did not like ‘Nicotine’ very much.  That is unusual because I had been on a roll lately with my reading.  It seemed every book I had recently read, I have really enjoyed.  They all got grades of B+, A-, A.  I thought maybe I had reached the point where my selection process was so well-tuned I only picked books that were just right for me.  But today I see I was only fooling myself.  After so many wonderful books, I picked one, ‘Nicotine’, which I did not appreciate very much at all after reading it.  I am actually quite happy about that, because my reading ship has finally righted itself after nearly tipping over from all the great novels.

I can tell that Nell Zink really doesn’t care whether or not I liked her novel.  Otherwise she would not have called it ‘Nicotine’.

What did I not like about ‘Nicotine’?  Let me count the ways.

  1. In the first few pages I was subjected to a quasi-incest scene that served no purpose in the plot of the novel other than to establish that this was going to be a wild and crazy ride.
  2. Then we get the deathbed scene of the father Ned. I know that there are horrible things involving blood, snot, and infection that occur on the deathbed, but I don’t need to be subjected to many pages of graphic gruesome detail.   I suppose this passes for gross-out humor in this ostensibly comic novel.  Later there is a shit storm in an apartment house.  Ha, Ha.
  3. The father Ned is a shaman who has a large group of hippie-like people who come to dance at his funeral. The career path of shaman does not interest me at all.
  4. There is a lot of sex in this novel. The sex in ‘Nicotine’ is less than interesting and more than dismal.
  5. The author Nell Zink has taken to heart the literary advice ‘Show, Not Tell’, and thus nearly everything is shown, not described or explained. Thus the characters are under-developed.
  6. ‘Nicotine’ contains some of the worst dialogue I have ever come across in the sense that it is inelegant and boring. In good dialogue the characters are so well differentiated that we can tell who is talking just by their words.  Here everyone speaks in the same clumsy manner so it is difficult to know or care who is speaking at any given time.
  7. By making them out to be weird inconsequential spoiled idiots and anarchist squatters, Zink discredits those who believe in social justice. Although it pretends not to be, ‘Nicotine’ is a very right-wing novel, a story for Trump supporters.
  8. The characters in ‘Nicotine’ are so sophisticated, so jaded, so disgusting, this farm boy could not identify with them at all. It was like they were from a different planet from the one I inhabit.  These people mostly seem to all be looking for a way to get out of their manic-depressive disorder by getting transgender surgery.

Nell Zink claims it only takes her three weeks to write a whole novel.  I am surprised it took her that long to write ‘Nicotine’.

 

Grade:   D+

 

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