True or false: can effective fiction be written in the format of a standardized test?
Answer: pretty much, and few are as equipped to do it as well as Chilean writer Zambra (My Documents, 2015, etc.), who has a penchant for experimentation. The book is broken up into 90 questions across five sections. At first those questions are largely ironic or comic in simplistic ways. For instance, the reader is asked to name the word that has no relation to “bear”: “endure,” “tolerate,” “abide,” “panda,” or “kangaroo.” But as the test focuses on completing, ordering, and eliminating sentences, it’s clear Zambra is aiming for more sophisticated and poignant effects. The questions become flash-fiction tales about transition points like lost loves, the discovery of a tumor, and a grandfather’s death, and the multiple-choice answers suggest that how we respond to a story depends heavily on where the writer places the narrative stress and what’s omitted or added. (For instance, a first-person story about the successes and failures of his children prompts the reader to rethink the story if lines about grandchildren and planned pregnancies are removed.) This reaches a kind of climax in the “reading comprehension” section, made up of three brief stories about a scheming pair of twins and couples that have split up. The follow-up questions tend to highlight the absurdity of pat answers to works of fiction. (“What is the worst title for this story—the one that would reach the widest possible audience?”) Even so, Zambra can sometimes insistently point to a “correct” answer: for a question in the story about school’s influence, the only option is: “You weren’t educated; you were trained.”
Though the overall effect is fragmentary, Zambra’s fragments are consistently witty and provocative. A-minus.