Lee Langley

And the answer is…

Is the general tone of Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice a) melancholic, b) comic, c) parodic, d) sarcastic, e) nostalgic?

Doorstoppers, slim volumes, loose leaves stacked in a box, bound pages fretworked with holes, epistolary exchanges, online postings, palimpsests…. Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes — and that’s just the format, before you get to the content, which might include fractured grammar, reversed chronology, parallel plots, contradictory footnotes, dead or unborn narrators and labyrinthine text.

Never though, until now, have I encountered a work of fiction set out as an examination paper. From first page to last here are 90 questions, a sly parody of the Chilean Aptitude Test for university applicants, right down to the numbered multiple choice boxes to tick. If this sounds off-putting, tricksy, a little too overtly experimental, think again: the initially disconcerting format speedily draws the reader into a beguiling, comic and oddly recognisable universe of marital breakdown, parental anxiety and thwarted hopes. Redolent of flash-fiction or a poem captured mid-stanza, these pages give us the real world, caught on the wing, no fantasy or sci-fi hypothetical alternatives. It’s like crossing a landscape illuminated by lightning, each bright flicker giving us a glimpse of a love affair, a childhood trauma, a sibling conflict — multiple narratives, moments of lives we will never know in full. One brief life begins

With the money he won in the lottery, the old man decided to fulfil his lifelong dream, but since his lifelong dream had been to win the lottery, he didn’t know what to do. In the meantime he bought himself a Peugeot 505 and hired me to drive it.

Alejandro Zambra grew up in Pinochet’s dictatorship, and within these encounters we get hints of life in Chile under the tyrant’s baleful fascist eye; the populace caged by rigid rules — everything Multiple Choice seeks to subvert. There are many questions in these pages, serving to highlight what the author has called ‘the illusion of the single correct answer’.

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