Title: Multiple Choice
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Published by: Granta (UK Publisher)
Available: 13th Oct, ask in your local bookshop for details.
Result: A1 (5*)
Earlier this year, I read for my book club The Vegetarian by Han Kang, the winner of the International Man Booker this year. That book on its own is a whole other post which I hope to get around to soon, but it did make me think about the kinds of books I was reading and made me want to cast my net a bit further into the field of translated reads. Luckily, Portobello Books, the publisher of The Vegetarian were there to fill that need and recommend that I read a new book coming our in English for the first time (this side of the pond): Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra.
I have never read anything quite like this book if I’m honest, discounting of course those bizarre exam papers I still dream about in which none of the answers are right. The book begins with a simple Excluded Term type exam in which the reader must eliminate the word unconnected to the question word and the others. The prospect of using this in a novel isn’t one I would ordinarily admire as I’m a bit of a pedant for traditional structures. However, this initial section although it’s literally a multiple choice exam, manage to strike up an atmosphere just as effectively as 20 pages of dense paragraphs. Zambra’s technique kind of crept up on me and immersed me in the world of the novel unexpectedly.
The following sections of the exam-cum-novel ask the reader to complete Sentence Order, Sentence Completion, Sentence Elimination and Reading Comprehension tasks. There are no descriptions I can give here that won’t spoil the book, or in some way hamper your experience. Just think back to those dreams we mentioned earlier in which the exam paper morphs as you read it and begins telling a story.
Indeed, throughout the novel Zambra does manage to create a rich and evocative story using the incredibly prescribed medium of a test as a commentary not only on the constraints of Chilean dictatorship but also on the constraints placed on us socially though family. Even the condensed characters, whom Zambra uses so effectively, do not suffer greatly from being flattened into the even more 2-D space of a multi-choice test. The two main characters manage to intertwine and blur the lines of good and bad choices as we begin to choose the answers most likely. Quite an achievement for a book weighing in at just 101 pages!
Truly I would regard this as one of my favourite reads so far this year, perhaps because I’ve read it just as I’m launching into quite an academic sphere in my personal life, but mostly because it’s an excellent translation of what could be called a genius use of form in literature. (See? I told you I was in academia again).
How would I rate Multiple Choice?
d) all of the above
e) none of the above
TL;DR: Answer the questions find the story. Turn in your answer sheet.