Morality and the Multiple Choice Test

lacie-slezak https://unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

On the continuum containing dictionaries with tiny margin-side illustrations and full-blown comics, where would you put a novel in the form of an exam?

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.

1. MULTIPLE

  1. manifold
  2. numerous
  3. untold
  4. five
  5. two

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—

jan-kahanek https://unsplash.com/photos/fVUl6kzIvLg

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:

24. Silence

  1. silence
  2. silence
  3. silence
  4. silence
  5. silence

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.

matt-briney https://unsplash.com/photos/0tfz7ZoXaWc

The choices we have determine the choices we make

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

  1. Your father argued with your mother.
  2. Your mother argued with your brother.
  3. Your brother argued with your father.
  4. It was almost always cold.
  5. That is all you remember.
  1. 2 – 3 – 1 – 4 – 5
  2. 3 – 1 – 2 – 4 – 5
  3. 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 5
  4. 4 – 5 – 1 – 2 – 3
  5. 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.

14 responses

  1. I’m not ready to talk about rabbits, I’m still answering Multiple Choice questions. I drove my 20 yo daughter home to her mother today. Two hours trip and she read the first 50 pages out loud. Absolutely blew her away and what’s more, have someone else read it made it even better. At one point she said that it should be a yr12 Literature study but with the Lit class blended with the History class and have the two teachers team teach and run discussion. But she said it would take a long time because each page could easily demand a whole period to discuss. But we both enjoyed it so much better than reading it solo.
    She said I was to say thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lovely! It’s rewarding to know a single post of mine has reverberated positively across more than one life (although, of course, I take no credit for the content of the book, which is the source of the reverberation).

      I’ll bear that in mind about reading aloud—I had an opposite revelation (but not in any way opposed to yours).

      I bought the book as a Christmas present for a friend of mine, and we discussed a few of the questions, as well as the whole experience.

      What struck me most is the intimacy of the reading experience: if you do end up answering the question—i.e. choosing an answer where it is at all possible to do so without utter absurdity—the main question should be “why?” Why that answer and not some other one?

      This is where it is key that you are alone, for it seems like dredging up the memory or reasoning which brought you to a particular answer is a rather soul-searching experience. Not to say painful necessarily, but revelatory. Also, possibly inexplicable to another.

      Discussing a question in its generality, practicing playing devil’s advocate, offering alternatives and historical allusions is all “safe” classroom and interpersonal territory, but when you’re honest, when you delve into that dark well of yourself—I’m not sure how many other people you want to bring along on that journey.

      Hence the intimacy and the incisive edge of the book that—in my opinion—public consumption can’t reveal.

      (Of course the rabbits can wait, let me know when you’re ready to discuss their provenance.)

      Like

  2. I went out and bought a copy
    I read it at one go.
    I burnt the dinner I was cooking and ended up have cheese on sweet biscuits.
    I didn’t feel like I was taking a test.
    It seemed to me very much like a “I wish I had an idea like that.
    It was a really great story about living through recent Chilean History.
    It helps a bit if you know a bit about Chile and how the American CIA got involved in establishing a really nasty regime.
    There are so many threads running through it I will have to go back in a week or two and read it again, slowly.
    Next time I won’t think about the structure at all I will just let the story immerse itself in me.
    The time after that when I read it again I will try to analyse the structure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And there I was agonising over how to respond to your earlier question—whether I could legitimately claim it was about Chilean History when upon looking through it (again, in order to answer the question) I didn’t see anything explicitly historical. I should have just trusted my gut feeling and said: yes. For that’s how I felt it. It’s a compulsive read—I couldn’t put it down either.
      So glad to hear my recommendation was heeded, and you were not disappointed. Thank you for letting me know!

      Like

      • There are little hints right through it, like mentioning Don Francisco in the same breath as Pinochet. And the next morning after the wedding party when they all mention all the things about Chile that need changing. I am very lucky to have a Chilean exile living in the next door flat and we have sat and talked about it. He doesn’t read English so I won’t give him the book. Anyway I have to read it again – twice more.

        Liked by 1 person

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: