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.