Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra review – intriguing, but hardly nourishing
Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s amusing linguistic acrobatics tease the brain but fail to dig deeper
Sunday 23 October 2016 10.00 BST
he structure of this intriguing little book draws on the national university entrance exam that Alejandro Zambra sat in his native Chile in 1993. Comprising 90 multiple-choice questions, it starts as comic wordplay but morphs gradually into a volley of melancholy nano-stories played out on terrain familiar from Zambra’s previous work: lazy schooldays, fizzled-out love affairs and the half-buried iniquities of life in a former dictatorship.
An early question asks us to mark one of five words with “no relation” to the word “blacklist”: “backlist”, “checklist”, “playlist”, “shitlist” and “novelist”. If that made you laugh, you’ll get on well with Multiple Choice, at least at first; the book’s energy leans heavily on the kind of category-switching curveball Zambra throws when he (or his presumably highly acrobatic translator, Megan McDowell) writes “novelist”.
Sometimes the change-ups do more than raise a smile: when we fill in the blanks in the sentence, “What is impossible for… is possible for…”, choosing from “men... God”, “men... women”, “the right... the left”, “Rebecca... Becky”, “the poor... the rich”, you wonder what Becky can do that she can’t as Rebecca. But mainly you feel the options play for laughs: one question asks if a particular story’s narrator doesn’t mention his wife’s name because “a) He wants to protect her” or “d) He’s a misogynist”.
Later we are invited to reorder the sentences in a series of deadpan five-step narratives that feature someone describing his conception during a curfew under Pinochet and (among others) a woman with breast cancer and dementia who can’t recognise her family but “never forgot she was missing a breast”.
While there’s a degree of brain-flexing fun to be had in thinking through the various permutations on offer, the sense grows that Zambra’s elaborate furniture is just that: a frictionless frame for stories that might have existed equally well on their own.
Proof, perhaps, comes in the book’s climactic comprehension exercises related to three memoir-ish stories, each a few pages long. The chewiest of them follows someone who tells his 18-year-old son that he left his mother because he felt too young to have a child. He admits that in his early 20s he readily used the phrase “I have a son” to mean “I’m a serious man, I have lived, I’m responsible, I have a history, so go to bed with me. And the next morning... Sorry, I have to go, you have to go, I have a son”.
In the appended questions, the comedy of Zambra’s absurdly divergent and digressive multiple-choice answers shades into glibness: when we’re asked which character we relate to most, the options include “none”, “the son, obviously” and “the mother, because I also got pregnant at that age, but I had an abortion. I regretted it so many times... but after reading this story I think it may not have been such a bad decision.”
Zambra is talented – no doubt about it – but it’s hard to escape the feeling that, despite its inventive form, Multiple Choice amounts to little more than a cute jeu d’esprit, amusing but hardly nourishing.
Multiple Choice is published by Granta (£12).