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An unexpected lesson in the guise of a standardized test

The standardized test: Is there anything less literary, less imaginative? Literature thrives on ambiguity and complexity; standardized tests rigorously avoid such things. Poems and novels resist the drive toward standardization and quantification. The whiteness of the whale demands a chapter and a novel, not a question with a single, easily quantifiable answer.

Given this, the degree of difficulty for Alejandro Zambra’s “Multiple Choice’’ is high. The fifth book by the young Chilean writer to be translated into English, “Multiple Choice’’ riffs on, and is structured like Chile’s Academic Aptitude Test — the university-entrance exam that Zambra himself took in 1993. But Zambra uses this restrictive form for playfully serious ends, questioning the very things — coherence and comprehension — that such tests seek to measure and encourage.

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The book consists of 90 multiple-choice questions, organized into five sections: “Excluded Term’’ (choose the one that doesn’t belong); “Sentence Order’’ (arrange “the sentences in the best possible order to form a coherent text”); “Sentence Completion’’; “Sentence Elimination’’; and “Reading Comprehension.’’ In this final section, Zambra gives us three superb short stories, each followed by a series of comically reductive questions: “In your opinion, which e-mail folder would be the most appropriate for a text like this one? A) Sent messages B) Drafts C) Inbox D) Spam E) Unsent messages.”

“Multiple Choice’’ is a destabilizing book. The ground continually shifts beneath our feet, and the things we ordinarily use to establish purchase — consistency of tone; our fundamental sense that texts are intentional objects, with the author having chosen to include this detail and exclude that one — are absent. Or, such footholds present themselves only to vanish once we put any pressure on them.

Take question #8. What word doesn’t belong with “Bear”? Choice A is “endure.” That fits, you think: To bear with something is to endure it, to suffer through it. Choice B is “tolerate.” A subtle shift has occurred: To tolerate is to endure but without the sense that serious damage is being done. We tolerate our neighbor’s nosiness; we endure crippling back pain. Choice C is “abide” — a verb that can mean tolerating something unpleasant (abiding by the law) but also can mean something like “live on” (our love will abide).

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Think about the ground Zambra has covered. With four simple verbs, he has got us thinking about pain and our willingness to accept it, about laws and love. Zambra’s writing is always haunted by Chile’s history, and he wants us to notice the political valences of these verbs, too: How much suffering did dissidents in Pinochet’s regime “endure” because other Chilean citizens chose to “tolerate” his rule?

Then, however, with the final two options for question #8 — “panda” and “kangaroo” — the rug is pulled out from under us. We move from “bear” as a verb to “bear” as a noun; from the world of emotion and politics to the animal kingdom. Like the best wits, Zambra shifts from the serious (How much pain must we tolerate?) to the absurdly incongruous (marsupials).

“Multiple Choice’’ contains many other moments of ungrounding. In the same section, we are asked what word doesn’t belong with “Teach,” with choice E being “screech.” Screech rhymes with teach, so maybe that justifies its inclusion on sonic grounds. But then you start wondering: Are there deeper, semantic similarities between teaching and screeching? When Zambra attended school, after all, to teach often meant not to screech — not to give voice to the suffering that the Chilean state sought to keep quiet. So is the real teacher the one who is willing to screech, to speak up? Later, we are asked to put the following sentences in order: “1) You dream that you lose a child. 2) You wake up. 3) You cry. 4) You lose a child. 5) You cry.” A dramatic arc is condensed, but order matters greatly: Did you dream about the loss of a child because the tragedy had already occurred? Or did the dream precede the loss? So much depends upon chronology.

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So much, too, depends upon exclusion or inclusion. As a character in the final story says, “That’s what life consists of, I’m afraid: erasing and being erased.” Creating coherence, Zambra suggests, always involves a kind of violence: Choosing a particular shape for a story means ruling out all other shapes; remembering one detail means forgetting another; choosing A means eliminating B, C, D, and E.

The human mind is a meaning-making machine; its default is to reduce and simplify. “Multiple Choice’’ asks us to resist this tendency, to keep meaning open and to dwell in possibility.

MULTIPLE CHOICE

By Alejandro Zambra

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Penguin, 128 pp., paperback, $15


Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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