REVIEW: Alejandro Zambra’s MULTIPLE CHOICE, translated by Megan McDowell

"Multiple Choice" is difficult to explain without taking away from the satisfaction of reading it. To attempt a list of the things this book does, to me as a reader or to the world as a piece of art, would be hopeless. "Multiple Choice" must be experienced firsthand. I will, instead, give an overview of the things that this book is:

"Multiple Choice" is the kind of book that makes me reevaluate the whole practice of reviewing books. It makes me wish there was some sort of regulatory body that curtailed the inane exuberance of book reviews in general, a set of rules that disallowed the use of hyperbole and superlatives unless they were actually warranted: Maybe every reviewer should have a yearly limit of five stunnings and brilliants and masterful achievements, so that those words actually mean something again – because this book deserves the full weight of such words, not the tepid sense of “it was pretty good” that they have come to mean.

This book is, as its cover suggests, unclassifiable, but it invites you to try: Underneath the title, standardized-test-style bubbles prompt you to choose "A) Fiction," "B) Nonfiction," "C) Poetry," "D) All of the above," or "E) None of the above." The text consists of 90 exercises in five sections. The final page of "Multiple Choice" is a blank answer sheet, with 90 sets of five bubbles -- ABCDE -- reminding you that the format is not a gimmick, that you can and should actually consider and choose an answer to every question, that this is a book not to be read so much as actively engaged with in a way that is impossible with traditionally formatted literature. And doing so is endlessly rewarding: In the first section, “Excluded Term,” you are asked to choose the answer that doesn’t fit with either the heading or the other answers. For Question Nine: Teach, the choices are “preach,” “control,” “educate,” “initiate,” and “screech.” The obvious answer (to me) was “screech,” but that means I have to accept “control” as being synonymous with “teach.” (Not that I’m happy with “preach,” either.) "Multiple Choice" is full of deliberate difficulties forcing the reader to confront what he or she is willing to accept.

"Multiple Choice" is a cynical book. It takes an unflinching and unflattering view on education, fatherhood, divorce, marriage, the act of writing, and post-Pinochet Chile, among other things. It meditates on whether/why “you” deserve a kick in the balls. One of the “Reading Comprehension” questions is about the necessity and tacit acceptance of cheating on standardized exams. The last words in the book are “fucking asshole.”

But this is still, somehow, a hopeful book. Despite the preponderance of depressing topics and images, the feeling I was left with at the end was one of connection. I’ve never been to Chile. I’ve never spoken extensively with anyone from Chile. But this book, as all good books must, reminds us that divisions of culture and geography are small compared to the common experiences that all humanity shares -- a worthwhile thing to remember in our polarized times.

"Multiple Choice" is a prodigious and nuanced display of craft. As a writer, I am envious beyond reason of the seamless integration of content, theme, and structure on display here. As a reader I am delighted to have discovered such an intuitive development of experimental literature: How has this never happened before? Are there no fans of both Kafka and choose-your-own-adventure books? But the execution is what matters, and "Multiple Choice" is formidable in that achievement. There is a story here. More than one: the story of Chile, of the narrator, of “you.” Of you yourself as the reader, working your way through the book. All of them compelling, each one inextricable.

Alejandro Zambra's "Multiple Choice" is an immortal artistic accomplishment, and you should read it.



Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 128

ISBN: 978-0-14-310919-8