The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

Where, even, to begin? Perhaps with what I knew about Paul Beatty’s The Sellout before I read it: it’s widely described in reviews as a scathing or searing satire on race; the semi-nameless narrator (his surname is Me, his girlfriend calls him Bonbon) is facing a Supreme Court trial because he owned a slave and tried to resegregate his town. (He’s black). The book made a number of best books of 2015 lists.

Maybe you’ve read some of the pieces by black authors on pandering to white audiences. This book doesn’t pander. Remember how I said I wanted to read books that challenged me, for which I wasn’t the audience? This book was a challenge. The question of audience is something Beatty addresses head on in both The Sellout and interviews about it. Right at the end of the novel there’s a scene at a comedy night where a white couple shows up, and the black comedian on stage yells at them:

“What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? . . . Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

Now if you’re a white lady reader like me, you might wonder if that’s addressed to you, who has laughed at a lot of Beatty’s witty, comic, heart-breaking book. And maybe it is. But then, so is this, from the narrator:

I didn’t agree with him when he said, “Get out. This is our thing.” I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. . . . But I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?” 

Questions of identity and belonging, including, I think, the question of who belongs in the audience, are always vexed in this book.

Here’s Beatty in a fantastic Paris Review interview, on his imagined audience:

I don’t know if I consciously think I don’t want that white gaze, although I know what you mean. I hope that in my audience of weirdos, there’s some of those people of all races. As people of color, as black people, we all have to have this ability to speak these different languages and make these different references—we don’t have to have it, but it helps. So for me, it’s still all in one big thing, and these cultures overlap more than they ever have. You know, in the 1970s people wanted this “authentic angry” stuff that was still directed at them but in a weird I-want-to-slit-your-throat way. I’m not saying those people aren’t a part of my audience. I’m just yelling. I know their ears will hear. But I’m hoping there are a ton of ears out there that hear. I’m trying not to yell in one direction, even though I can’t really help but to do that.

I kept trying to make sense of this novel. What is it saying “about” race? What is his point? But I think that was the wrong approach. It’s a novel of questions, more than of ideas. And nothing in the plot is resolved. How could it be? America, as The Sellout makes very clear, is not “post-racial.” None of these questions are resolved. And Beatty can’t do that work for us.

The narrator “segregates” the local school (Chaff Middle School), which is all black and Latin@, just by creating a fake construction site for the all-white “Wheaton Academy” next door (wheat and chaff! I just got that now, geez what an idiot). Part of the “joke” is that segregation is already, de facto, in place. But when he makes it explicit, suddenly the kids at Chaff start to do better. Why? Because they don’t want to be explicitly shut out? Because suddenly they’re freed from the cognitive dissonance of living in a world that tells them they’re equal, but doesn’t treat them that way? There’s no obvious answer.

And what to make of the narrator’s slave, Hominy Jenkins (an elderly former actor who’s the last surviving Little Rascal)? Hominy wants to be a slave (and doesn’t do much work). Is it a way of reliving his glory days playing a racist stereotype on TV? Of satisfying his masochism? (The narrator pays a dominatrix to deliver the whippings Hominy asks for). Here again, an interview with Beatty helped:

I don’t know, I guess it comes from – I have, like, all these images of “Gone With The Wind” and all these other movies – all these, you know, plantation movies in my head. And just the way that people relate to the antebellum United States. I just thought it was funny, like, how this guy handled having a slave. Like, what does that mean? . . . And, you know, it’s the discomfiture with what freedom is, what it entails, what responsibilities do you have.

I think in that response you can hear Beatty’s own discomfort with explaining his novel. He wrote it. It’s our job to figure out what we think it means. And I suspect he also doesn’t want to explain it in a way that makes it “comfortable.” Here he is in the Paris Review again:

I’m surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel. I mean, I get it. But it’s an easy way not to talk about anything else. I would better understand it if they talked about it in a hyphenated way, to talk about it as a tragicomic novel, even. There’s comedy in the book, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there, too. It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else.

(Kevin Young’s review places the book in the context of black humor–an anthology of which Beatty edited). Rarely do I turn to author interviews to help me make sense of a book–I don’t grant the author that last word on the text. Obviously, I still want an answer here. But I think The Sellout wants us to be blundering along bewildered through this mess with its protagonist.

If I give up on deciding what the book means, what’s left? I think it’s language that propels the book forward, more than plot (which is, as I said, unresolved, and which is often in the background) or character (they never quite feel real, as absurdist as the world they live in). Beatty is a poet as well as a novelist, and it shows. I was surprised by a review that called the prose “lyrical,” because it isn’t the kind of writing that usually gets described that way. But it did have a real musicality–and its playful dexterity is sometimes reminiscent of rap lyricism. Here are a few snippets I copied:

They’ll pore over the legal briefs and thumb through the antebellum vellum . . . brush the dust off the petrified rights and writs buried in bound legal volumes. . . .

or

the languid bojangle of his limbs

It seems too easy, or stereotypical, to reach for comparisons to rap or jazz (you know, it’s black art). But they make sense, because the book is dense with allusions from all across the cultural spectrum (Godard to Star Wars, Clifford Odets to the Little Rascals), riffing and improvisational. Ultimately, I found all this verbal play exhausting. It’s brilliant, but it’s hard work. I had to read in small bites.

The Sellout is sweary and disdainful of euphemism (there’s liberal use of–well, to be euphemistic, the n-word) and funny and angry. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read, but it reminded me a little bit of Adam Johnson’s The Orphanmaster’s Son, a novel set in North Korea. Both create over-the-top, absurdist worlds (or are they?) as a way of approaching a reality too unjust, too wrong, to seem anything but absurd when looked at squarely. How can this go on? Both use humor in an “if I didn’t laugh, I’d have to cry” way. And both are well worth reading.

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2 Responses to The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

  1. Sunita says:

    This post makes me want to set everything else aside and start reading the book NOW. Or, rather, listening, since I picked up the audiobook in Audible’s recent sale. I can imagine it is exhausting to read, because you can kind of tell that from Beatty’s interviews. I hadn’t seen the one with Scott Simon, but I cringed at his last question, about how even if 90% of his audience like his jokes, 10% will be offended. First, the book is about so much more than jokes and comedy (did Simon not research his interview subject?), and second, is there any serious artist who hasn’t managed to offend someone? Simon notices here because the offense will be racially oriented. But the possibility of offense is intrinsic to any art that takes risks or explores difficult questions.

    The other thing that struck me, reading your post and then a couple of the links, is that we are more aware of the extent to which our sub- and micro-cultures overlap and borrow from each other these days. But they always have, it’s just that the default groups didn’t realize it. The “dominant culture” default is a construction of power relations, not a reflection of social reality. So maybe we are just seeing in Beatty (and other writers, like Mat Johnson) the crossovers and conversations that have always been there in non-dominant work but muted or absent in dominant groups’ work.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, do it! I need someone to discuss the book with. I could have written a 3-times-too-longer post on it, because there is so much going on.

      I thought the joke question was really uncomfortable. As if offending people would somehow be a misfire instead of–maybe not quite intentional, but of course when you write about things like this honestly, whether comically or not, some of what you say will cause offence to people who aren’t comfortable with the honesty. I also watched a short interview from the PBS Newshour, and again it seemed really uncomfortable. (Including the interviewer saying that he couldn’t quote a lot of the book because of the language. Why point that out? I felt it was a subtle warning to the genteel PBS audience that a maybe this shit ain’t for them). I was struck by how much more at ease Beatty sounds in the Paris Review interview, and I’m sure part of that is the difference between edited text and the more transcript style report at NPR that captures every “you know, like,” but maybe it was also being interviewed by someone black around the same age who feels he is one of the weirdos in the audience, something they talk about in the interview.

      I think one question the book asks is whether we can really have a meaningful “conversation about race” without getting all the offensive stuff out on the table. He doesn’t believe in politeness on these issues.

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