You Weren’t Educated, You Were Trained

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice

THE standardized test is an object of involuntary memory. For those of us susceptible to the Proustian effects of the scantron, the rows of blank dots, the flawless rectangles, the arcane sequencing -- State-verified and vaguely Talmudic -- they call out from dusty youth, an echo of ritual, of submission. As students, we were keenly aware that this inexhaustible document already possessed the answers to any and every test we might be presented with. This was its power, its menace. We knew, intuitively, that it had absorbed all of the world’s information. It merely awaited another orchestration of questions. Backs straight. Heads down. Fill in the bubbles completely and thoroughly. No madeleine, this; still, the memory unspools effortlessly. If time is regained, so too is the classroom.

But what if the standardized test’s bureaucratic residues were somehow washed clean? Could that rigid scaffolding support the ache and boil of human experience? Could (gulp) literature be lurking within? This is the essential gambit of Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice. In a brief postscript, Zambra admits to his inspiration: “The structure of this book is based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test.” He is being neither fanciful nor figurative here. The book is quite literally a test: ninety multiple choice questions spread across five distinct sections, from “Sentence Order” to “Sentence Completion.”

A sample question from the former:

26. The second

• You try to remember your first Communion.
• You try to remember your first masturbation.
• You try to remember the first time you had sex.
• You try to remember the first death in your life.
• And the second.

• 1 - 5 - 2 - 3 - 4
• 1 - 2 - 5 - 3 - 4
• 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 4
• 4 - 5 - 1 - 2 - 3
• 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 - 5

If the familiar structure lures us into reflexive evaluation -- scanning choices, fitting pieces, establishing coherence -- the kink and guilt of sex, of god, of death warp and tangle the impulse. Each sentence sequence is entirely satisfactory, a variation on a theme like an existential arpeggio. Which, then, do we choose?

The joyful provocation is to present the unanswerable mystery of existence within the context of a test whose single but insistent demand is that these questions be answered. It is the trap of possibility, of potential angles, the giddy frustration of, say, attempting to visually “escape” an Escher creation. In lesser hands, this conceit could come across as gimmicky, a cold heuristic gag. But there is a boldness here -- a ripple of sneaky humor and unlikely anguish -- that adds heft to the formal ingenuity:

51. You were a bad son, __________ you write.
You were a bad father, __________ you write.
You are alone, __________ you write.

• so       so       so
• of that       of that       of that
• but       but       but
• because       because       because
• and still   and still     and still

For fans of Zambra, this interrogation of metafiction, often indistinguishable from its deployment, will come as no surprise. In Zambra’s works, the creation of fiction is often suspicious, corrupting, even shameful -- at best, an outmoded endeavor: “The novel belongs to our parents, I thought then, I think now,” as he writes in Ways of Going Home; “While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.”

But even as adults, his protagonists often “play at disappearing,” writers whose inhabitation of the concreteness of reality is compromised by the parallel worlds they create in their fiction. The structural chicanery of Multiple Choice is a natural evolution for Zambra: the protagonist is jettisoned entirely, leaving the fixedness of the form to staunch the wound of his past work’s reflexivity. Because there is no writerly presence manifested within these questions -- because the structure of the book, with its administrative gloss, seems to preclude the existence of such a writer -- Zambra no longer feels the need to complicate, obfuscate, or qualify the existence of the fiction itself. It is a strategic excision -- one that allows for a razor-sharp focus on that other great Zambran concern: how we make, order, and understand meaning.

This is not to say there aren’t honest to god stories here. There are. But while the book is spiky and playful and of a piece with his previous successes, there is something about seeing Zambra’s longer-form work frozen within these confines, a forced complicity in which our compelled answers (A B C D) feel a lot like the defusing of a sleek and elegant armament. And of course, perhaps that’s the point.

The book begins with fragmentary word association but builds toward proper narration in short order, first in the flash fiction of section three’s “Sentence Elimination,” and then more fully in section five’s “Reading Comprehension,” a collection of three short stories. The first, titled “Text #1,” is an essential microcosm of Multiple Choice: It relates a tale of two identical twins, their story offered to a group of students by their former religion teacher, an apostate named Segovia. One of the twins, brilliant and motivated, stands in for his less academically inclined brother in the all-important Academic Aptitude Exam, inadvertently achieving the highest score in Chile. Though Twainlike in its humor and charm, Segovia’s parting thoughts lend it melancholy and venom: “‘The National Institute is rotten, but the world is rotten,’ he said. ‘They prepared you for this, for a world where everyone fucks everyone over. You’ll do well on the test, very well, don’t worry -- you weren’t educated, you were trained.’” It is a damning indictment of the test-as-fate, of destiny grafted onto evaluation. Segovia continues: “‘I didn’t get a high score,’ he said, when it seemed there wouldn’t be any more words. ‘I was the best in my class, in my whole school. I never cheated on an exam, but I bombed the aptitude test, so I had to major in religious education. I didn’t even believe in God.’”

Lest we become too comfortable with this story as a piece of discrete, stand-alone fiction, a series of questions are administered at its conclusion, which, after Segovia’s melancholy admission, feel a bit like rubbing salt in a wound:

73. The purpose of this story is:

• To suggest a possible work opportunity for Chilean students who perform well academically but are poor (there aren’t many, but they do exist): they could take tests for students who are lazy and rich.
• To expose security problems in the administration of the university entrance exams, and to promote a business venture related to biometric readings, or some other system for definitively verifying the identities of students
• To promote an expensive law firm. And to entertain.
• To legitimate the experience of a generation that could be summed up as “a bunch of cheaters.” And to entertain.
• To erase the wounds of the past.

What, then, are we to finally make of this bizarre, biting, deeply funny work?

“I think that this story and the book as a whole argue against the illusion of a single right answer,” Zambra told the New Yorker last year. “But it’s also a book about the wish for that answer, the naïve or visceral desire for there to be a truth.” Often our condemnations are ciphers for our most keenly desired fantasies. There is something like this happening within Multiple Choice, a form within a form, the Russian nesting dolls of critique. Zambra, finally, isn’t merely dismantling the ideology of testing. It seems to me his sights are set on a larger target: narrative form itself. “[M]aybe you needed to destroy it to feel it was yours…”