It's usually only in retrospect that we can consider the seismic importance of major political events we lived through in our childhood. “The Remainder” opens with an account of the children of Chilean revolutionaries whose parents are having a party on the evening of 1988 when Pinochet is voted out of office. Of course, the children are more interested in sneaking sips of alcohol and fostering their own obsessions while the adults are embroiled in politics. Many years later the three children Paloma, Iquela and Felipe embark in a hearse on a surreal road trip. They want to retrieve the body of Paloma's mother which has been lost in transport because a volcanic eruption has covered nearby cities in ash and has caused the plane transporting the body to be redirected. The lyrical prose describe the rich intricacy of their interactions and shifting relationships with each other as well as their stumbling efforts to make sense of the political circumstances they were raised in. This is vibrant story that captures all the complexities of feeling experienced by a particular country's new generation burdened with the weight of the past. 

It's impressive how the prose is mainly composed of big blocks of dense text which are filled with oblique references, yet there's an admirable lightness of style which make them compulsively readable. Chapters switch between the perspectives of Iquela who has a tense distant relationship with her mother and Felipe who turns the country's numerous dead into a mathematical equation he feels obliged to solve. A strong subtle bond develops between Iquela and Paloma who has lived abroad for years so her experience contrasts sharply against Iquela's circumscribed existence. In Felipe's more rhapsodic sections he has emotionally-fraught brief encounters with both the living and the dead. There's a great pleasure in following their chaotic journey which is filled with all the angst and humour of young people trying to figure out their place in the world and navigate the shifting depths of their own desires.

At times It felt like a hallucinatory experience reading this novel – partly because they take some strong drugs left from Paloma's mother's illness and partly because of the haunting physical setting of a city coated in ash. But I found it easy to relate to their ardent confusion trying to connect to a proceeding generation who lost themselves in an imagined future. Felipe's mathematical mission “to count objects so that they became associated with a perfect, seamless figure” takes on a great poignancy as these three young people face the reality of innumerable casualties lost amidst a crushing former dictatorship. Though they don't embody the values of their parents, these queer young people have inherited the fallout of that generation’s conflicts. This novel currently shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize powerfully captures this tension in a way which is imaginative and convincing.

When I was in school I absolutely hated standardized tests. It seems melodramatic now but I simply could not focus on the dreary text and formalized questions. Often I ended up filling in the multiple choice answer sheet to make a pattern on the page rather than mark what I thought were the right answers. I wish now that I had just knuckled down and focused more but at the time that felt impossible. So it’s a delight coming across inventive Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s new book “Multiple Choice” which is based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. He creatively plays with the test’s format to form micro-stories and oftentimes hilarious commentary on society, formalized education and the human condition. This is a brisk, short book but like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel you could easily spend ages thinking about the multiple combinations and outcomes you could make in each section.

Each section of the book is laid out like a standard multiple choice test where you are instructed to exclude a term, reorder a sentence, decide on how best to complete a sentence, eliminate certain sentences from the text or show your comprehension of a story. Yet, quite often the multiple choice responses are comical, sarcastic or slyly make subversive statements. Sometimes reordering the text creates radical new meanings which are in turns poetic/ironic/poignant or the possible answers create impossibilities as if completely mocking the idea of an exam. There’s a great deal of wordplay where in one section he writes “You try to go from the general to the specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.” The infamous military dictator Pinochet pops up several times in the text and some sections make a sharp critique Chilean society and the notoriously oppressive political system under his rule. These passages add a weightier feeling to the book as you can sense so strongly the strain of having lived under such a fearsome regime. (If you want to see a great documentary about the longlasting effecting of Pinochet’s dictatorship watch the powerful film Nostalgia for the Light.)

Many of the early sections are filled with only brief lines of text whose meanings are cryptic or suggest there could be much longer stories told. Frequently there are allusions to broken families or tempestuous relationships. One of the extended stories towards the end is about a man who won’t give or can’t remember his former wife’s name. It was quite shocking to learn in this story that Chile only legalized divorce in 2004. Another story is about a man who works variously as a chauffer and ghost writer for a politically conservative man who wins the lottery. The more extended texts are followed with possible interpretations of the text which are alternately funny or add another kind of meaning to them. It reminds me of Will Eaves’ powerful book “The Inevitable Gift Shop” which similarly suggests methods of reading while simultaneously creating an engaging story.

“Multiple Choice” is a richly rewarding and extremely funny book which so cleverly plays upon those standard school tests many of us dreaded taking.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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