A Review of Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (translated by Megan McDowell) by Lara Lillibridge

mult-choiceMultiple Choice is a small, weird book that is best read in one sitting, so the sections can build properly on each other (which of course I didn’t actually do, because it was summer and life interfered and I am never as assiduous as I mean to be). The structure mimics the Chilean Academic Aptitude test given to university student hopefuls between 1967-2003 (in Chile, obviously, or it wouldn’t be called the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test). No answers are given—the reader must become complicit to discover meaning.

The general themes are love, loss and longing, fathers, children, and the authoritarian politics of Chile. It is about knowing you have not been the person you wanted to be, and even when you were filled with hope and certainty, it didn’t turn out according to plan.

Zambra writes about how schools teach children to memorize, repeat, regurgitate, but never think, and how one’s future often depends not on thinking, but on mastering tests, and how often times academic cheating results from this culture of testing. He accomplishes this by use of the unanswered question—some short, with several questions fitting on one page, and some long-form, where multiple pages of prose are followed by questions.

To best illustrate how the test question style conveys meaning I have transposed a question from page 39 of section IV, in which Zambra succinctly introduces the reader to the political climate and family structure which shaped him. He does it with minimal words, but the feel of oppression and the lack of love are clear.

IV.

Sentence Elimination

“In exercises 55 through 66, mark the answer that corresponds to the sentences or paragraphs that can be eliminated because they either do not add information or are unrelated to the rest of the text.” (35)

57.
(1) A curfew is a regulation prohibiting free circulation in public within a determined area. 
(2) It tends to be decreed in times of war or popular uprising.
(3) The dictatorship imposed one in Santiago, Chile, from September 11, 1973, until January 2, 1987.
(4) One Summer evening, my father went out walking with no destination in mind. It grew late, and he had to sleep at a friend’s house.
(5) They made love, she got pregnant, I was born.

A) None
B) 5
C) 1, 2, and 3
D) 4 and 5
E) 2

Helpful note:

I wish I had realized at the beginning of the book that there was an answer sheet at the end. I wanted to actively participate but I really didn’t want to mess up my book by writing in it. However, I do have an intense love of filling in those little bubbles on scan-tron answer sheets, so I totally would have done so if I had realized it was an option.

I will attempt to review this book in the style in which it was written.

Fill in the blanks:

____________ becomes __________ when the writer plays with form.

  1. Prose poetry
  2. Mundane interesting
  3. Banal thought-producing
  4. Leisure work
  5. Spectators participants

Mark the answer that best completes the sentence. I enjoyed this book because:

  1. I like weird experimental books
  2. I like to fill in those little bubble circles on answer sheets
  3. It’s only 101 pages with plenty of white space
  4. The last word in the book is “asshole”

Mark the answer that corresponds to the word that has no relation to the other words:

  1. Brilliant
  2. Irritating
  3. Deep
  4. Concise
  5. Sublime

Circle my favorite lines from this book:

  1. “You remember the freckles on her breasts, on her legs, on her belly, on her ass. The exact number: two hundred twenty-three. One thousand two hundred and seven days ago there were two hundred twenty-three.” (18)
  2. “You think about how the shortest distance between two points is the length of a scar.” (24)
  3. “The thing that we did learn, and to perfection—the thing we would remember the rest of our lives—was how to cheat on tests.” (65)
  4. “Nullity was the best way to erase the unerasable.” (86)
  5. “I mean, the first consequence of your birth was that from then on, I could never kill myself.” (91)

Mark the answer that corresponds with the sentence(s) that can be eliminated because they are unrelated or do not add information:

  1. Is being called “Latin America’s new literary star,” by the New Yorker condescending if it is emblazoned across the cover?
  2. Why not the world’s new literary star?
  3. I suppose part of me feels somewhat more impressed with myself for reading an international writer.
  4. I would have read it anyway because I dug the premise.
  5. Maybe it’s just that I have an affinity the torn-paper edges and the way the paperback covers fold over, mimicking a dust jacket because the folded faux-dust-jacket flaps serve as handy bookmarks.
  1. None of the above
  2. 1, 2, 3
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. All of the above

Fill in the blanks: 

I am a ­­________________ but I learned something about __________________.

a. white female     oppression

b. bad daughter     bad fathers

c. depressive     solitude

d. prose writer     poetry

Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction.  In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, and was a finalist in both Black Warrior Review’s Nonfiction Contest and DisQuiet’s Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction.  She has had essays published in a variety of places on and off the web, including Hippocampus, Pure Slush Vol. 11, Polychrome Ink; Luna LunaHuffington Post, and The Feminist Wire. Lara’s memoir will debut in Fall of 2017 with Sky Horse Publishing. (websitetwitter)