Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Alejandro Zambra's "Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1" was originally published in the July 6 & 13, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.

July 6 & 13, 2015Two issues ago, The New Yorker published a very positive article on Zambra by none other than James Wood — it was very positive. They follow that up with one of Zambra’s stories, the second they’ve published (you can read some thoughts on “Camilo,” which appeared in the May 26, 2014 issue, here).

Honestly, I am not quite on board. I’ve read and admired Ways of Going Home (my thoughts here), and I read his new story collection My Documents (which spurred Wood to read the rest of Zambra’s work) but didn’t enjoy it much at all. I hope it’s just me and that I’ll find more to admire as Zambra keeps writing.

I’m anxious to read your thoughts, so please join the conversation below!


To get things started, here are Adrienne’s initial thoughts.

Something is missing here for me on this one. It feels like a memoir/essay that moves clumsily into an anecdote, then crashes with a “thud” into a slightly humorous satire.

This tale is set-up perfectly for an honors English class that can take and dissect it into form and feature. The quiz at the end is a parody of the theme — a gimmick to be sure, but one that will introduce students to a new author and will offer opportunities to compare and contrast education across cultures.

But for me? At this point in my life? I have heard great things about the creativity and skill of Alejandro Zambra, and I am disappointed that “Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1” was my introduction to his work.

I was not reading a story here. I was reading an English Comp paper written by a student who decided to be clever, and even a bit trite.

Not every writing by a well-praised writer can be praiseworthy. But in this magazine? Surrounded by accolades in an interview and laden with commendation in an interview? This piece does not warrant the laurel leaves.

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By |2015-06-29T17:01:35-04:00June 29th, 2015|Categories: Alejandro Zambra, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Tony June 29, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    If I were to choose a Zambra short story to show him off, it wouldn’t be this one. There are plenty of good ones in ‘My Documents’ – this one is just a bit shorter, a nice length for the medium.

  2. Archer June 29, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    My Documents made me a believer in Alejandro Zambra. I think he’s a marvellous short story writer. For those familiar with his work, this story doesn’t do anything particularly new, but it’s representative in its melding of personal and political history, with wry metafictional touches that threaten to spill into preciousness, but never quite do (at least for me). I think he’s a real talent.

  3. Trevor Berrett June 29, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    I’ll have to pull out My Documents again, something I believe I’ve promised myself to do based on hearing your admiration before, Archer.

  4. Sean H July 2, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Despite my aversion to things gimmicky, I thought this was one of the more entertaining pieces recently published in The New Yorker, and certainly yards better than anything in the Summer Fiction Issue. It is inventive, formally playful, and presents a foreign world in a way that is instantly graspable to the reader. The characters aren’t particularly deep or developed, but that’s rarely a short story’s forte anyway and the teacher turned train conductor is actually quite indelible. A short, satisfying structuralist gem is what Zambra is going for and while it might not be a classic, it’s a good read. Also, I give him credit for knowing exactly what his best line is and then bringing that back in at the end and hammering home that refrain; kind of breaks up the icy constructedness of the conceit.

  5. Roger July 3, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    The story within the story, about the twins, came across to me like a stern lecture about how life is unfair and capricious: the boys trade their innocence for corruption and prosper as a result. The faux multiple choice quiz at the end adds an even heavier hand. The frame, about the cheating narrator and his cheating schoolmates, along with the religion teacher, goes on too long for a frame and not long enough to be a story in its own right. A D minus!

  6. Ken July 4, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    I was so glad to read something with wit (perhaps Marcus’ horror show had humor, but not wit) and lightness after so much garbage or heaviness. Not only was this readable, but also clever and inventive. Here, the unsatisfying ending is perfectly earned because it’s the point of the piece to not end with closure but a meta-fictional quiz.

  7. Rosalind July 12, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I agree with Sean and Ken. I loved the quiz, a perfect vehicle that Zambra’s used to get his message across.

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