Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra
My first experience of Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra, a novel in the form of a multiple choice test, was to attempt to brush the eraser dust off its cover—eraser dust, it turns out, which was printed on the cover, just the illusion of eraser dust. I had already fallen into its trap. I turned to the first page, thinking I would try to take the book at its word. I read the instructions to the first set of questions: “In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.” My training kicked in. I turned the page. I pulled out a pencil. The first three questions went swimmingly:
I felt I had marked the correct answer and could even articulate the reasons for my choices. By question five—5. Blink a) sweat b) nod c) cough d) cry e) bite—I was swarming with questions. The practical act of reading such a novel is an exciting departure in the way it breaches the expectations of my training—to take exams, to read novels—and forces me to read the exam, to take the novel, to move through the form and my expectation simultaneously.
Because of its use of the test form, the scope of Multiple Choice somehow feels all-encompassing: it’s about marriage, children, death, ghosts, Chile, the dictatorship, and education—all in ninety questions. The book expertly mingles the cold, academic voice of a multiple choice exam while continually rejecting those conventions. Many of its questions are impossible to answer: some present a question to which the answer is wholly subjective, some present answers that change the parameters of the question, and some give only bad choices, which would alter the narrative, leave a hole in it, or radically and disappointingly simplify it.
Multiple Choice is also, fittingly, a novel about erasing, about the choices we make and the choices we can’t erase. In “Text #3” of the section “Reading Comprehension,” the narrator writing to his son says, “Everyone gets erased—life consists of meeting people whom first you love and then you erase—but you can’t erase children, you can’t erase parents.” Throughout the book, we encounter instances of the desire to erase and the inability to do so.
“Question 64” is narrated by the son of Manuel Contreras, the infamous head of the secret police during the dictatorship of General Pinochet, who was responsible for thousands of executions and disappearances. Contreras’s son, having the misfortune of sharing his father’s name, says, “Once, I took the phone book and tore out the page with my name, our name. I counted twenty-two Manuel Contrerases in Santiago. I don’t know what I was looking for: company for my misery maybe. But then I stuck the page into the paper shredder.”
“Question 80” responds to a text about the inability to divorce in Chile until 2003: “A much better system existed: annulment. Because when a couple separates, what we really want is to believe that we were never married, that the person with whom we wanted to share our lives never existed. Nullity was the best way to erase the unerasable.”
Finally, a question from the first section, “Excluded Term,” in which we are asked to choose the word “whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed,” which, of course, is here rendered impossible:
This moment deftly presents the full capabilities of Zambra’s novel: stretching the familiar box of the multiple choice question into a murkier, complex, multivalent, even unanswerable space. Because, of course, there cannot possibly be “no relation” between the terms once we see them, we cannot unsee the picture formed by the constellation. It is as the novel teaches us, we cannot erase the unerasable, it always leaves a smudge. –Blair Johnson