Serious Gimmickry…

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

Translated by Megan McDowell


I’m always really drawn to experimental fiction, even if I don’t always get on with it, so once spotted, I was always going to have a go at this book. I know nothing about the author, but Zambra, I gather, is one of the stars of Chilean writing.

This book is structurally based entirely on the real test that Chilean students take to get into High School. In this multiple choice test there are five sections:

  1. Excluded term – which word is the odd one out
  2. Sentence Order – put the sentences in order
  3. Sentence Completion – which words fill in the blanks
  4. Sentence Elimination – which sentences don’t fit
  5. Reading Comprehension – a text of several pages plus questions.

All are multiple choice, and the number of words increases through the sections. The first section which comprises the first ten pages has 24 questions – seemingly unlinked. I tried to choose the odd one out words to make a story in themselves as I went through, but failed. It was quite fun though – this one was intriguing:

a) endure
b) tolerate
c) abide
d) panda
e) kangaroo

If panda were pander – then kangaroo is obviously the odd one out… is it a deliberate typo?

In the following sections, the sentences start to link together, one way or another, to form story fragments, and later in part IV where you eliminate sentences, the stories become more obvious still, and the eliminated sentences tell different stories in fragments.

It’s not until the final section where you have a longer text with questions after that we get anything near fully formed vignettes. The texts expound on the purpose of testing and how to beat the system; marriage, divorce and growing up in Chile, (Chile didn’t legalise divorce until 2004).

For the ignorant reader – like me – who hasn’t read Zambra before and knows very little indeed about life in Chile, I don’t think this book can ever go beyond being a gimmick. Despite that, there are some great sentences, humorous, touching, or deeply philosophical, but I forgot to mark them to quote – sorry. For those more versed in South American literature and more knowledgeable about Chile under Pinochet and so on, I’m sure there is plenty of serious political and cultural comment in this little book which mostly went over my head.

a) Fun at times, but seriously gimmicky
b) A deep comment on life in Chile
c) A mixture of the above

My Answer: c  (6/10)

For more views on this pseudo-novel, read Eric here, and Tony here.

* * * * *

Source: Own copy.

Alejandro Zambra – Multiple Choice, trans Megan McDowell, (Granta Books, Oct 2016) Hardback, 128 pages.

9 thoughts on “Serious Gimmickry…

  1. Susan Osborne says:

    Brilliant review, and thanks so much for reading this so that I don’t have to, Annabel! It snagged my attention but I wondered if it might be too clever by half. I particularly like your verdict.

  2. Harriet Devine says:

    I don’t think I’ll be reading this but it sounds like fun. A panda is a kind of bear (playing on the meaning of the word), so I assume kangaroo is the right answer, though your suggestion is ingenious.

  3. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    >>I’m always really drawn to experimental fiction, even if I don’t always get on with it

    This is an exact description of my own feelings about experimental fiction. I’m always at least interested — it’s neat to see how different people make use of storytelling in all these different ways. Maybe if I just, like, thoroughly read a Wikipedia article about the Pinochet regime, that would be enough background for me to get like say 40% of what Zambra’s talking about? Do you think? Cause the format sounds really cool.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think that anything about Pinochet and something about living in Chile today would be beneficial. I’m just about to read a book by Che Guevara’s grandson and will do a bit of prior research this time! 🙂

Leave a Reply