I turned to Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’ as some light relief after the torture that was ‘The Golden Bowl’. You can tell how bad things have got when a Booker Prize winner constitutes light relief. But it was. ‘The Sellout’ works best as an extended stand up routine – at times angry, often lyrical, usually very funny, challenging, and fast paced enough to ensure that the jokes that don’t work are quickly left behind and you are onto to the next.
The narrator, “Me”, opens the narrative in the United States Supreme Court, where a case against him is being heard. The majority of the novel explains how the case occurred (i.e. in flashback). The narrator comes from and lives in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens, a suburb or ghetto of Los Angeles. He is raised by his sociologist father, who uses him as the subject of some bizarre social and racial experiments, which are hard to distinguish from child abuse (“I wasn’t fed; I was presented with lukewarm appetitive stimuli. I wasn’t punished, but broken of my unconditioned reflexes. I wasn’t loved, but brought up in an atmosphere of calculated intimacy and intense levels of commitment“). After his father is casually gunned down by the police and he inherits the family small holding, and his father’s taste for outrageous racial experiments.
The central conceit of the novel is launched when the narrator re-introduces slavery and segregation to Dickens. The segregation of bus passengers along racial lines is widely welcomed by the passengers, who are almost exclusively black in any event. Emboldened by the unlikely success of this initial experiment the narrator segregates the local all-black school, by renting a vacant lot opposite and advertising a soon-to-be-opened all-white college. Attendance and grades at the existing school quickly begin to improve. Further inventive ways of segregating an all-black community continue until the law intervenes.
This rather bald summary may make it look as if Beatty’s satire is unsubtle, if not reactionary. Is he suggesting that the position of some black people in America have not improved since the end of slavery and the struggles of the civil rights movement? The narrator is very clear that is not the point being made, however much it may appear to be the case. The Republican argument that more black children grew up with two parents during the days of slavery than they do today is comprehensively destroyed. But equally the advances in civil rights and representation since those days, such as the election of a black President, are not something that the angry voice of the novel takes for granted, or considers enough.
“I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!”
The election of the most reactionary President since I have no idea has underlined the novel’s argument that we are not yet living in a post-racial world.
While being a complex and nuanced discussion of race in America today, the novel is not for the lily-livered. The language is full-on, as above, and the n-word is used throughout the text. Some of the jokes miss their mark, such as