The Review: I have the feeling that certain readers will find this book overly gimmicky or infuriating as hell. It is, of course, exactly what it sets out to be: a novel (or, well, a piece of literature) constructed in the form of a classic Scantron multiple choice aptitude test. There is no moment where the test suddenly gives way or where the author stops to address you: it is a test.
And, reader, I took it. There’s an answer sheet at the back of the book (sadly not perforated, so I had to keep flipping back to it) and I bubbled in every* one of those damn answers. I wonder if Zambra and/or his publicity team will ever offer some kind of scoring matrix – perhaps it could be a bonus chapter? Because, frankly, I’d really like to know how well I…
Hang on. This isn’t a real test. This is a novel (or, well, a piece of literature). I didn’t need to take it so seriously, did I? If you’re anything like me (or, heavens, any younger) then you have been programmed over the course of your life to react to a multiple choice test. Zambra clearly was – and the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test seems to be a far more devious version of the SATs, the CAT5, the PSSAs, etc. See, there are questions here that are unanswerable – hence my asterisk about bubbling in every answer. There are questions that provide you with five choices, any of which could be your answer depending on the day or the time or the life circumstances you found yourself in.
And, in many ways, I think the novel (or, well, the piece of literature) does in fact provide a test, as do (in their own way) all novels or pieces of literature. We often talk, perhaps because of our academic conditioning, about the way novels spoke to us and what they seemed to mean. We look for the ways in which the experiences of the characters or the quality of the prose illuminate something about our own lives. And while Zambra doesn’t have any characters and the prose is often on the shorter side, he still manages to tell us something about ourselves – and prove that books can mean different things to different people, because we’re completely conscious of the fact that we answered ‘B’ on question 90 but could, if our lives had been different, answered A or D or E. Or, yes, C.
Zambra also has fun with the concept, provoking some laugh-out-loud moments that might well be the first time anyone has ever laughed at a standardized test except in order to not burst out into tears. The metanarrative of Reading Comprehension Text #1, excerpted in The New Yorker, provides a great example: the text is about two brothers and involves the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. The following questions include questions about not the story itself but tests themselves. Some answers, here and there throughout, refer to cheating and test-taking strategies straight out of the 9th grade handbook. Others create a sort of closed loop that might trap you if you think about it for too long.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, really – and yet, so like so many things I have experienced in my life. I was so ready with my #2 pencil and my test-taking strategies as I read, as though my life had prepared me for this novel (and, yes, I’m staking that it is in fact a novel) in ways I could’ve never imagined. I’d encourage you to have your pencil out, too – not to mark up the margins but to take the actual test. You might be surprised at what it reveals about you. I know I was.