Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Overread at Table 4: Alejandro Zambra "Multiple Choice" Book Review

Alejandra Zambra – Multiple Choice


I loved the concept of this book: a novel written in the format of a multiple choice test.   When I got into it I discovered that the book was based on the entrance test for University acceptance in Chile, specifically, the format of the test given in the late 80s and early 90s.


Having the text in several numbered statements and then giving the reader the choice to choose (multiple choice) the order of the statements, almost feels like the “Choose Your Own Adventure books” that I loved as a kid.  It gave me that feeling.


It would have been easy for the author simply to rely on this schtick, however, and just write a novel in the format for the simple sake of writing a novel in this format – to make some existentialist piece with no real cohesion. 


There are some topics specific to Chile that most likely a non-Chilean, or at least a non-South American, reader will not understand, but frankly, the references to the history and culture of Chile give it a more exotic flavor.  For example, I did not know that Chile still had an indigenous population with their own language and that there was some discussion about whether or not that language should be taught as part of the curriculum in grammar school.


The story truly begins to gel toward the end of the book, the essay sections, in which the reader finally understands that the author is divorced, a parent, dealing with personal issues of family, of his own failures, both personal as well as economic.  There is a character, his employer, who seems to be more of a father figure, and some others who are only seen briefly and then disappear, like a glancing breeze.


Overall, it is a fun read, with some lyrical writing.  It is not, however, wholly satisfying, because we never truly understand the narrator or his life.  Maybe that’s the point.   Maybe the admissions test, meant for a university faculty to determine who gets into the school, will never be a valid method by which to determine the character of a person who will do well at that institution.  Maybe this novel is an indictment of not only the admissions test in Chile, but admissions tests everywhere.  Who can truly know a person simply from a set of multiple choice questions and some hastily scribbled lines on a two page essay?



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