There seem to be so many warnings about Paul Beatty’s 2016 Man Booker Prize-winning The Sellout. It is by turns reviewed as caustic, rage-fuelled, biting, unforgiving, and apparently challenges sacred tenets of the United States constitution. It is all these things, but to let these descriptions define the book is to severely misrepresent it. It is hilarious and awkward and so horribly honest and deeply interesting. It is a literally laugh-out-loud rollercoaster of a monologue, into a completely foreign world, both wonderful in its humour and observations and almost terrifying in its revelations.
I’m a reader, sure, and I even write about what I read, but I nearly feel unqualified to talk about The Sellout and its world so different it is from my own. Its narrator was born, raised and still lives on the outskirts of southern LA, in the agrarian ghetto of Dickens and the story opens with him on the Supreme Court steps in Washington DC, apparently fighting for a black man’s right to be racist against blacks. Raised by his controversial sociologist father, the narrator still lives in the same house, living a life stuck in despair and gloom; the small town, middle lower-class America, the life of a black. It is dark, but it is blackly funny.
He decides to literally get Dickens back on the map, an odd premise for the flashback story to get us back to where we started in the Supreme court. As a forgotten 1970s outpost experiment of how to live with its urban agrarian lifestyle, the Dickens community barely survived and now it is not even acknowledged by the state. The narrator wants to instil some pride, get some girl, kill some time.
There is a deep, self-aware anxiety that pulsates throughout the narrator’s consciousness; a driving force of non-negotiable flawed existence, informed by both massive problems in the way his dad brought him up and the un-ignorable race relations that shape his relationship with society. The angry, resigned acceptance of this is worth quoting at length to cover both the complexity of the issue and the forbearing humour:
“You’d rather be here than in Africa. The trump card all narrowminded nativists play. If you put a cupcake to my head, of course, I’d rather be here than any place in Africa, though I hear Johannesburg ain’t that bad and the surf on the Cape Verdean beaches is incredible. However I’m not so selfish as to believe that my relative happiness, including, but not limited to, twenty-four-hour access to chili burgers, Blu-ray, and Aeron office chairs is worth generations of suffering. I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalising that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.”
The rage is deep, informed, and unassailable. It’s difficult to engage with because of it’s size and scope but at the same time completely understandable, relatable, and isolating.
“Like, why blame Mark Twain because you don’t have the patience and courage to explain to your children that the ‘n-word’ exists and that during the course of their sheltered little lives they may one day be called a ‘nigger’ or, even worse, deign to call somebody else a ‘nigger.’ No one will ever refer to them as ‘little black euphemisms,’ so welcome to the American lexicon – Nigger!”
Which makes it interesting to read: as a non-black, female living on the other side of the world, you would think there is little to relate to here. I think past reviewers have used such strenuous adjectives describing this book because it is discomforting and difficult to think about the role we play in the world Beatty inhabits. No one is clean, no one is safe. The anger is indiscriminate but also justified, and a lot of people don’t want to understand that and confront their personal contribution or why they are responding the way they are.
“…when folks say, ‘Why can’t we talk about race more honestly?’ What they really mean is ‘Why can’t you niggers be more reasonable?’ or ‘Fuck you, white boy. If I said what I really wanted to say, I’d get fired even faster than you’d fire me if race were any easier to talk about.’ And by race we mean ‘niggers,’ because no one of any persuasion seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and America’s newest race, the Celebrity.”
No matter how you react to the social issues Beatty dives into, this is an incredible book to read. While it is impossible to separate it from the culture it interrogates – the culture it yells at – as a piece of literature it is humorous, well-versed, relentless, heavy and smart.
The Sellout is a sharp book and a great read. I laughed, and then had to interrogate my discomfort at laughing, and then examined why Beatty would put humour in a place like that at all. I finished it feeling spent: simultaneously conversant and inadequate; tired from laughing and tired from how horrible the world is. It is an unusual, well-deserving Booker winner.