'Multiple Choice' Is Like a Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock Painting
This sparse, abstract literary text gives us ample room to interpret and to question the very notion of interpretation.
Multiple ChoicePublisher: Penguin
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translator: Megan McDowell
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: 2016-07
Alejandro Zambra's Multiple Choice challenges interpretation by directly inviting it. There's no overarching plot line; instead, Zambra writes about parenthood, death and authoritarianism in 90 multiple choice questions. The reader answers the questions and begins tampering with these small stories. We become a creative force only to have Zambra deftly show how little influence we have over our choices and the ridiculousness of forming a single interpretation for a literary work.
What's wonderful about the stories in Multiple Choice is how much information is conveyed in so few sentences. Take #27 from the Sentence Order section, for example:
27. A Child
1. You dream that you lose a child.
2. You wake up.
3. You cry.
4. You lose a child.
5. You cry.
A. 1 - 2 - 4 - 3 - 5
B. 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 4
C. 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 1
D. 3 - 4 - 5 - 1 - 2
E. 4 - 5 - 3 - 1 - 2
The story ordered 1-to-5 is OK as a piece of micro (dare I say tweet-able) fiction. What makes Zambra's stories more impressive is their malleability. Options A and B show a parent's fears coming true, or perhaps they're moments of premonition. B ends on the loss, giving the story a sense of hopelessness. Option D shows us a prior sadness heightened by the loss of a child. C, D and E have a parent clearly tortured by the loss. Maybe D and E present a more hopeful ending with the parent waking up literally from a dream or metaphorically from this ordeal. That's pretty good for 18 words with five different combinations. The story's essence, however, has remained the same: someone loses a child and contends with grief.
The theme of authoritarianism is more overt in the Sentence Elimination section. After questions regarding curfews, a family's fear of "you", and a mysterious woman visiting a grave, we read question #58 which 'asks' us this:
(1) I didn't want to talk about you, but it's inevitable.
(2) I'm talking about you right now. And you're reading this, and you know it's about you.
(3) Now I am words that you read and wish did not exist.
(4) I hate you.
(5) You would like to have the power of a censor.
(6) So no one else would ever read these words.
(7) I hate you.
(8) You ruined my life.
(9) Now I am words you cannot erase.
It's true, these are words we cannot erase -- the answers provided make that impossible. Undoubtedly the question addresses us directly and presents an accusation: we would like to have the power of a censor. This opens up an interesting question: are we creating when we answer these questions or are we censoring? To what extent can censoring be a form of creation?
Furthermore, what effect are we really having on this text? We "would like to" have the power of a censor, not that we are one. We impose our will on the text to alter it, yet there is authorial resistance. Authorial intrusion has us eliminating our own options in #58 and in the case of #27 the story loss and grief remains even with our alterations.
The final section of Multiple Choice is Reading Comprehension. Three short stories are provided and several questions regarding interpretation are posed. This is a more significant change from the previous questions than it may appear. Sentence Elimination, Order and Completion questions ask us to change or establish a story, and once established interpretation is our own prerogative. Here the story is fixed and we're directly asked to interpret. In a sense we're forced back into the typical relationship between a reader and a text.
All of the interpretation options we're given in Reading Comprehension appear equally plausible. Some questions even ask us what we cannot know, such as the inclusion of Ayahuasca (an Amazonian hallucinogenic) in Text #3. Is it there because the author wanted to add an "ethnic touch"? to encourage drug abuse? is it there on a whim or to empathize with young people? I don't know and I don't believe we could know from the mention of Ayahuasca in the story. Why does the author of question #58 believe we, the readers, ruined his life? We don't know.
Not only does this section show the futility of searching for a singular truth or meaning in a literary text, it also begins to show the conceitedness of believing one can discover the correct interpretation of a literary text when so many plausible options exist. This sparse, abstract literary text gives us ample room to interpret and to question the very goal of interpretation. Perhaps imposing my own reading of Multiple Choice is a censorious act.
Multiple Choice still has moments of excess and melodrama despite all this sparseness. Questions #27 and #58 repeat "You cry" and "I hate you" respectively; do these sentiments need to be underscored with duplication? The text opening presents the hitherto unmentioned Excluded Term section. Unmentioned because it overindulges in boring poeticism. The reader is asked to mark the word in a list of five which has no relation to the heading or the other four words.
The heading "Body," for example, has the following terms listed beneath: Dust, Ashes, Dirt, Grit and Smut. While this may indicate something about the test writer, remarks on the dirtiness and the transitory properties of the human body are not anything new. "Silence" is a heading in question #23 and #24. In the second instance "Silence" is followed by the word 'Silence' five times. Though it may not seem like it, these are the best examples from the section. At least these clichés are presented in a novel way.
Multiple Choice may be so abstract that we impose more meaning on it than it provides or intends. In this way the text is like a Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock painting. The work's simplicity or complexity, and it's meaning, lies more with us than with the work itself. Multiple Choice, like a real test, tells us about ourselves. Like a real test, it gives us questions, not answers.