‘Multiple Choice’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

img_5519Right, children – pencils out, phones off (and in bags).  Please listen very carefully.  You have about ten minutes to read the following post, after which you will be tested on the content (and as to whether the book is worth buying).  How will you be tested?  Well, isn’t it obvious?

*****
Alejandro Zambra’s books rarely follow the simplest route from A to B, but with his latest work, the Chilean writer has outdone himself.  Multiple Choice (translated, as always, by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of Granta Books) is a shortish work full of Zambra’s usual observations on life in his home country, but with one major difference.  The book is designed in the format of the Chilean High School exam, the Academic Aptitude Test, mirroring the exam in all its sections (right down to the sheet students use to answer the questions, helpfully included at the back of the book).

If that sounds bizarre, it most certainly is, and when I first received my copy and flicked through, I had some misgivings.  The first few sections were noticeably light on text, with paragraphs few and far between.  Despite glowing praise on the back cover from the likes of Stuart Evers and Daniel Alarcón, I was unconvinced that this would be anything more than a gimmick.  However, Multiple Choice is very cleverly designed, and once you get through the early sections, there are even a few decent-length short stories to enjoy.

Section I, Excluded Term, provides a word and then asks us to choose the word with the least in common from five options.  Zambra here uses wordplay to subvert the test, and while some of the questions are sensible, others (for example, number 25 – Silence -, where all five answers are the same as the question…) are not.  The third section calls for sentence completion, with clever twists and language not seen in real school tests, such as describing the Chilean Constitution as “a piece of shit”.  What comes across here is a sardonic tone, providing veiled commentary on a country under repression, where the only means of coping is sex, drugs and (very) dark humour.

In Section II, the reader (or candidate…) is required to put sentences in the best possible order, with the emphasis of meaning shifted slightly depending on your choice.  A nice example here is Question 36 (Scars), which consists of eleven sentences, mostly flippant:

You try to go from the general to the specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.
p.24 (Granta Books, 2016)

It’s only when we get to the final sentence that the mood changes, with a clever twist casting a pall over the ‘story’.

While these shorter parts are clever, the joke can wear thin after a while, so I was grateful for the last two parts, where we finally get to read some longer texts.  In Section IV, Sentence Elimination, we must decide whether removing sentences from the brief stories would improve them.  There are often several stories within stories, and removing sentences can change the gist completely.  One of my favourite ones here begins:

(1) In Chile, no one says hi to each other in elevators.  You get in and pretend you don’t see anyone, you pretend you’re blind.  And if you say hello, people look at you strangely, sometimes they don’t even return the greeting.  You share your fragility in silence like a sacrifice. (p.45)

By choosing one of the options given at the end, the story becomes an anecdote told at dinner, a childhood memory or the story of a passion barely restrained.  It’s up to you how it pans out – it’s your test, after all…

The final section is the Reading Comprehension, where we encounter three longer texts, expanding on the themes alluded to earlier in the book.  The first of these looks at the test itself, with a retired teacher telling some former students all about how exams and real life really work:

“The National Institute is rotten, but the world is rotten,” he said.  “They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over.  You’ll do well on this test, very well, don’t worry – you weren’t educated, you were trained.” (p.71)

The other two stories cover some familiar Zambra ground, the first a tale of marriage and a lack of divorce, the second a confessional piece from a father to his son.  In case you were wondering, there are some questions, but they tend to be fun and flippant rather than testing, occasionally blurring the line between writer and reader.

But does Multiple Choice work?  At times, very much so.  A lot of effort has obviously gone into the design of the text (and I’d have to give a special mention here to the Granta book designers too as my UK review copy looks amazing).  The later longer pieces are excellent vignettes, and even some of the shorter questions can be thought-provoking, turning from sarcastic to poignant in a matter of words.  In truth, though, for all the unique structure, the actual content is very similar to what was covered in his collection of stories, My Documents (but just with a lot less of it).  Again, we explore the writer’s childhood, family life, school days and several difficult relationships – there’s nothing really new here.

While I’m not totally convinced by Zambra’s idea, however, I’m full of praise for his translator.  In addition to her work on the stories, which read excellently, she’s done a wonderful job on the questions.  Spanish and English have a lot in common structurally, so translating longer texts shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but at a word-to-word level it’s a very different story.  Many of the shorter questions rely on word play, and I suspect this translation is very different to the original in parts.  Full marks (!) to McDowell for making this a book that never feels forced or stilted, despite the concept.

A+ or F-? A work of genius or the Emperor’s New Clothes?  I enjoyed it, but I’d understand people who swayed in either direction.  Multiple Choice is a nice idea with some more excellent writing, but it’s not the first place I’d be sending newcomers in search of Zambra’s best work.  I suspect the book would resonate more with the original readers (who probably suffered through the test themselves…) – for this Anglophone reader, it doesn’t quite make the grade.

OK, pencils down – how did you go?😉

13 thoughts on “‘Multiple Choice’ by Alejandro Zambra (Review)

  1. Well this would be challenging to read I suspect. you’d either love the ingenuity or think it was trying to be too clever by half – and I don’t expect to have to sit an exam when reading a book

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  2. I just flipped through this today at the bookstore and as much as I appreciate an experimental turn, it did seem a little short on substance to justify putting down hard earned money. I wasn’t getting out of there unscathed as it was, so I quite happily passed it by.

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    1. Joe – Whenever I bought something at book shops (which rarely happens now as nothing I like can be found there…), I had the same urge to make the most of my purchases, usually ending up with something more substantial!

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  3. I’ve started reading this – just got to the end of section III(?) where you eliminate sentences from the list. I must admit, I didn’t really get what the first section has to add to the story, and I am totally ignorant of Chilean politics and life – so maybe this isn’t the best book for me – as it seems pure gimmick so far… :S

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    1. Annabel – Part I is simply there because the concept demands it😉 It’s all good fun, but in truth it isn’t until the last two sections that it gets interesting.

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  4. How interesting. I’ve read a couple of Zambra’s earlier novels but not heard of this one. I adore word play (well, I have to say that seeing as I’ve spent so much time in my career writing headlines) but I think this book would drive me slightly crazy… it does sound quite gimmicky. But hey, full marks to the translator… I bet that was a tough gig.

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    1. Kim – I’ve read all his previous work in English, which probably affects my opinion of this – as I say towards the end, ‘My Documents’ is a much better book and would be my recommendation for someone wanting to try his work…

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  5. I just finished Facsímil, which I read with Multiple Choice by its side, occasionally peaking to see what Megan McDowell did with it in English. (She did an A+ job as far as I can see…) Zambra is one of those dude writers who, like Daniel Galera, could very easily make me roll my eyes out. They don’t because they’re good and they’re funny and they didn’t grow up in Brooklyn / London.

    I didn’t find Facsímil all that lightweight at all, though I suppose it’s possible the dissatisfaction with an academic system that really does train rather than educate you, that conditions you to “fake it”, doesn’t resonate with Western readers who never grew up in a totalitarian state? I wonder about that often when English readers are accused of being provincial. I don’t think it’s fair to them, I can’t imagine they can relate to learning these survival mechanisms from an early age.

    Anyway, if you read one Chilean book this year it should Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red. /plug

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    1. Soffara – For me, ‘Multiple Choice’ is good in parts, but for those of us with no connection to the actual test, the first few sections are fairly dull. There’s nothing much of interest until the final two sections – and as I said above, ‘My Documents’ does that so much better (including a story which talks about his time at school). It’s a concept, a conceit even, rather than a work of literature (reminding me of Valeria Luiselli’s ‘The Story of My Teeth’, another book where the writer chose experimentation over creating something readable…). I’d quite like to try ‘Seeing Red’, though😉

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      1. It’s another Megan McDowell translation and much more of a work of literature, I’m curious to see what you’ll make of it.

        I also read My Documents, but I never thought of it while reading Facsímil. As a writer, it’s interesting to realize just how much readers do go back to “previously on…”.🙂 (Valeria Luiselli… I only found out recently they’re friends. I don’t find her unreadable, just terribly dull.)

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        1. Soffara – I got an electronic review copy of ‘Seeing Red’ from the publisher – hopefully I’ll get around to it before too long🙂

          Re: Luiselli, I loved her first two but really disliked ‘The Story of My Teeth’, and despite some effusive reviews out there, I sense I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. She really needs a much better book next time out if she’s to keep up the high praise she currently enjoys in the Anglosphere…

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