CULTURE & ARTS
07/28/2016 11:22 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

The Problem With Standardized Tests Is Exposed In Playful New Book

HuffPost Culture's book of the week is Alejandro Zambra’s "Multiple Choice."
Richard Goerg via Getty Images

This is not a test.

In fact, Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice is a critique of test-taking, and the reductive practice of choosing a single answer to an interpretable or multi-faceted question.

The book, appropriately, is tough to categorize. It’s formatted in the style of the Chilean national exam, a test all students take to determine college placement, and which Zambra took himself in 1993. Publishers and critics have called it a novel, a poetry collection, a work of criticism. But Zambra clearly aims to avoid classification. He abandoned another, more traditionally told story he’d been working on in favor of beginning Multiple Choice.

The book begins with a prompt: The reader is to determine which word, in a series of 24 questions, doesn’t fit with the others that it’s grouped with. From the first question, it’s apparent that none of the answers will be clear-cut; “bear” is matched with “endure,” “tolerate,” “abide,” “panda” and “kangaroo,” highlighting the tenuous connection that exists between so many words, and the absurdity of drawing distinct lines between them, rather than embracing their playful fluidity.

Distinct lines are just what Zambra is waging against. In one question, the narrator writes that he is Manuel Contreras, and he is also Manuel Contreras’ son. He finds a page in the phonebook with 22 listings for Manuel Contreras, looking for solidarity, but he sticks the page in a paper shredder, claiming that sharing a first and last name ― mere words ― with another individual has never done him any good. What’s ostensibly similar can be deeply and complicatedly different, in ways that can’t be whittled down into lettered options.

Penguin

You can’t talk about Zambra without talking about Chile, the country he is from, and the country he’s disillusioned with. He lived through the aftermath of Augusto Pinochet’s corrupt, overbearing rule, which began in the early 1970s and lasted through the late ‘80s. It makes sense, then, that Zambra’s past books ― My Documents, The Private Lives of Trees, Ways of Going Home and Bonsai ― are short and intentionally disjointed, leaving room for the power of what’s left unsaid. The same mood reigns over Multiple Choice, which unites a series of personal stories under one theme: attempting to limit human experience to the confines of tasks and rules can stifle and distort.

The second portion of the book, “Sentence Order,” prompts the reader to place a series of events in chronological order ― but events as ethereal as quarrels and loving memories aren’t usually recalled so straightforwardly, with an accurate calendar in mind.

The fourth section, “Sentence Elimination,” asks the reader to select the sentences that should be removed because they “do not add information” to the text. The idea is that each sentence should follow after the other in a cohesive, declarative fashion ― dates and facts take precedent over emotional observations. In one question, the narrator defines what a curfew is and states that there was a curfew in place in Santiago, Chile, from 1973 to 1987. But these historical tidbits are interrupted by a less palatable detail: The narrator was born as a result of that curfew because his father stayed over at a friend’s house when it was too late for him to walk home. Of the five multiple-choice options, two imply that this anecdote should be removed from the story. Zambra-as-literary-critic shows himself here, commenting on which elements of a story ― namely, the mysterious and the interpretable ― are vital to its liveliness and emotional import.

The final section, “Reading Comprehension,” asks the reader a series of questions about a preceding text. Here, the book’s clever structure falls away and poignant vignettes emerge. Zambra crafts three touching works of flash fiction, one about a student who learns of twins who traded places to succeed on their exams, another about a marriage that later gets annulled before divorce is legal in Chile. Both are subtle and ripe with meaning. Both are stripped of nuance in the multiple-choice questions that follow.

In a question about a bitter former high school teacher who later runs into his students, the reader is asked which of his sentiments about education is true. If you were to write a book report on Zambra, the options that follow would be highlighted as its thesis statement:

A) You weren’t educated, you were trained.

B) You weren’t educated, you were trained.

C) You weren’t educated, you were trained.

D) You weren’t educated, you were trained.

E) You weren’t educated, you were trained.

What we think:

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice is a small book packed with meaning and space for interpretation. By structuring it as a test, the author comments on the rigidity of Chile’s former fascist leader. By allowing the reader to meditate on how to make sense of each puzzling question, he offers an alternative to enforced structure.

What other reviewers think:

Kirkus“Though the overall effect is fragmentary, Zambra’s fragments are consistently witty and provocative.”

NPR: “Throughout Multiple Choice, Zambra traffics in a depth of imagination and playfulness that is akin to a guessing game. As with many of his earlier works, he is content to play with, prod, and shake up the reader, confirming once again that the questions we ask about the world and about ourselves are oftentimes far more telling than the answers.”

Who wrote it:

Zambra is a Chilean novelist who’s been described as “Latin America’s new literary star.” This is his fifth book.

Who will read it:

Fans of Borges and other playful, experimental writers. Those interested in a book about that explores the limits of formal education.

Opening lines:

“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.”

Notable passage:

“The bride ― of course I remember her name, though I think eventually I’ll forget it, someday I will even forget her name ― looked lovely, but my parents just couldn’t understand why she would wear a black dress.”

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