An exam with pictures?
No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.
Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):
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.
How would you answer?
Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.
To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?
To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!—that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.
A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.
— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—
As with most novels and most exams, Zambra’s novexam gets more complex, both over the course of each section, and over the course of the sections. If Question 1 delves into the nature of synonyms, and contains traces of a deeper issue, then by the time you reach Question 24, the issue is exhibited in its full, absurd glory:
There is a political backdrop to this book, which readers unfamiliar with Chilean history and society are unlikely to appreciate fully—me included—although it is possible to feel the urgency and desperation engendered by certain regimes. For example, I immediately associated Question 24 with a form of Sophie’s Choice: if you were told you could save one of your five children from immediate death, or indeed, if you were told you could save four, but not the fifth, who would you pick as the odd one out?
Unlike in the case of Buridan’s Ass, where not choosing would lead to the death of the one making the choice, in Sophie’s Choice not choosing would lead to the death of all five children. (This is why I said you cannot completely anaesthetise yourself from the book’s message: taking an imaginative leap from Question 24 to the extreme pains of a moral dilemma requires letting Zambra rattle you.)
Also, silence. Question 24 may be asking about the varieties of silence, are they all the same, can they be distinguished, and how? Are some silences morally justified, are others cowardly? Is the silence of the oppressed the same as the silence of the passive-aggressive? My interpretations are not arbitrary: Zambra leads the reader along, inspiring ideas through his word choices.
In Section II, each question offers a collection of numbered sentences. The answers A to E are different orderings of those sentences. The reader has to chose the best possible order to form a coherent text.
25. Nineteen eighty-something
- Your father argued with your mother.
- Your mother argued with your brother.
- Your brother argued with your father.
- It was almost always cold.
- That is all you remember.
- 2 – 3 – 1 – 4 – 5
- 3 – 1 – 2 – 4 – 5
- 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 5
- 4 – 5 – 1 – 2 – 3
- 5 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
Again, may I point out that reading Zambra’s novexam would be a voluntary “test” and that no one would be grading it. In other words, the world doesn’t care what you answer—although you should care what the question and the orderings that come to mind reveal about your own past, memories, and morality.
If you’re curious about the other Sections:
- III asks that you chose the word which best fills in a blank in the given sentence;
- IV that you remove the sentence which least fits in the narrative;
- V that you chose the best answer in a test of reading-comprehension.
It may seem like Multiple Choice is a time- and effort-demanding exercise, but it isn’t. Like any other book, it will suck up as much of your energy and attention as you allow it to: I read it (or “solved it”, if you like) in an hour while exercising. I come back to some of its questions, and will continue to do so, because of the ethical and linguistic mechanisms they reveal, but that’s just my habit with any worthy text.
As such, I recommend Zambra’s novexam to everyone—it’s unique, and revelatory, and it will teach you about you.
As such, I particularly recommend it to literary enthusiasts and writers—it will teach you a unique aspect of word-choice, sentence-choice, and story-writing.
I suppose this means I’d put Multiple Choice closer to a dictionary than a comic book on my continuum.
Yes, I know. You saw that coming.