Thursday, September 22, 2016

Unusual Narratives - "Multiple Choice" by Alejandro Zambra

How do you approach a work of fiction that is structured like the Chilean college entrance exam?  When I first heard about the book Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra, I was intrigued because it seemed like such a bonkers premise.  How could someone tell a story through this kind of alternative/non-narrative form?  As soon as I was able to obtain a copy, I dove in to experience it for myself.

The text is divided into sections with titles that you might encounter on any standardized test.  Within each section are questions structured like those a student may come across on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, however the actual content serves a very different purpose.  To further the narrative trope, in the back of the text is an "answer sheet" with bubbles to fill in which correspond to the answer chosen for each question.

The questions themselves are the actual stories, but this isn't obvious at first.  When I began reading the first section "Excluded Term", I really did mark down my answer for each question, thinking that maybe there would be some narrative that would become clear from those answers.  However, I was unable to pinpoint any cohesive storyline that would satisfactorily connect all 24 questions/answers.  Therefore, I figured that this first part of the text was made up of 24 pieces of what I'll call nano-fiction.  Characterization and/or emotion are present, and the fact that the author can accomplish this with only a single word, followed by four multiple-choice answers, is proof of Zambra's talent.

 The author gradually expands his storytelling as the book goes along.  In the second section "Sentence Order", the reader must arrange the presented sentences into the "correct" order.  Depending on the arrangement, a unique narrative becomes evident for each of the 11 questions.  Because the questions/stories are a bit longer than in the previous section, and contain more detail, I would categorize this part of the book as micro-fiction.

The third section of the text is called "Sentence Completion", and presents 17 sentences/paragraphs in which the reader must choose the correct word(s) to complete the sentence(s).  While still being micro-fiction, this is the most interactive portion of the text so far because the reader has the power to completely change the narrative based on what word(s) are chosen.  This section truly gives the reader power to make the story her/his own.  More micro-fiction follows in the next part, "Sentence Elimination".  As the name suggests, the reader is allowed/encouraged to make the included 11 stories as she/he sees fit by removing portions based on options presented in the multiple-choice answers.

The final section of the book, "Reading Comprehension" presents the longest-form stories in the entire book.  They are each around 10 pages long, and are followed by seemingly critical thinking-type questions.  However, the way that the questions are phrased, as well as the wording of the multiple-choice answers, has snarky, darkly-lit humor.  These stories are, despite their brevity, heartrending and very clever.

The fact that the reader is necessarily involved in the telling of the stories is evidence that the author is welcoming of individual interpretation of the material.  This goes against the nature and purpose of a standardized test, which requires ever test-taker to identify the same correct answer to the same question.  Individuality vs. collectivism.  Critical thinking vs. rote memorization/cheating.  Not only is the author using flash fiction (nano/micro/etc.) to comment on the world around him, he is also utilizing the aptitude test format to comment on the idea that students have learned how to take the tests, not how to think.

It's quite difficult to categorize Multiple Choice, because it does not follow anything remotely resembling a traditional narrative.  Using the structure of a standardized test is a unique constraint, because it forces the author to be economical and precise with the words used.  Yet, it's not so contrived that the author's voice is lost.  There is a playful, sarcastic, devastatingly human soul in this pseudo-test.  Overall, a unique reading experience and a beautifully executed work.

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