Review: ‘The Sellout’

“If Disneyland was indeed the happiest place on earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not the yearly equivalent of the GDP of a small sub-Saharan African country like Detroit.”

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which has deservedly won the Man Booker Prize this year, is filled with pure satiric genius. Bold and daring, The Sellout is witty and bitingly ironic, reminiscent of the styles of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. The novel’s protagonist is a black man nicknamed Bonbon, raised in Dickens, Los Angeles, by his sociologist father who studies race by running experiments on him. When his father is murdered meaninglessly in an instance of police brutality, Bonbon attempts to revitalize his town and its people by reintroducing slavery and segregation. Since Bonbon’s last name is ‘Me,’ the novel begins with Bonbon facing the Supreme Court in the case of ‘Me v United States of America.’ This sets the tone of the novel, as Beatty systematically sets himself against every aspect of American culture and deconstructs it.

Cover photograph by the reviewer.
Cover photograph by the reviewer.

The novel’s central theme is the absurdity of the notion of a post-racial United States of America, as Beatty successfully demonstrates that people of colour experience racism in every aspect of their lives on a daily basis. Beatty is willing to take risks and to shock, and in the process, he confronts the stereotypes that African-Americans in the United States often face. From heavy topics like police brutality, the portrayal of people of colour in entertainment, gentrification, and ongoing segregation in neighbourhoods across the United States, Beatty segues into the more mundane, but equally important, appearances of racism: on a bus, people avoid sitting next to a black man as much as possible. Through conversations between a white woman named Laura Jane and Marpessa, Bonbon’s black girlfriend, Beatty also addresses some of the stereotypes people of colour face every day. Marpessa challenges Laura Jane’s belief that being unable to achieve the American dream is solely about class, not race. Through Marpessa’s furious response to Laura Jane’s assertions, Beatty argues that race has everything to do with African-Americans disproportionately experiencing poverty.

Throughout the novel, Beatty also masterfully captures the farcical nature of attempting to ignore the history of slavery and the legacy of segregation when they continue to exist in different guises. Bonbon’s official segregation of the school system, making all the white students attend the local private school and leaving the failing public school exclusively for people of colour, causes moral outrage in the neighbourhood. Since Bonbon officially bans all white students from the school, segregation quickly becomes a national issue, although no one paid attention to the failing and already segregated school system before. In addition to reinstating segregation, Bonbon ends up reinstating slavery as well. When Hominy Jenkins begs to become Bonbon’s slave and Bonbon reluctantly accepts, Hominy, who has been oppressed by the entertainment industry his whole life because he is black, feels whole once again. Beatty also critiques black middle-class intellectualism through the character of Foy Cheshire, who attempts to sanitize writing of the past, by changing the title of books like The Great Gatsby to The Great Blacksby. Beatty also weighs in on the age-old American debate of Mark Twain’s frequent use of the N word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He has Foy completely rewrite the novel until it is utterly unrecognisable, once again demonstrating the absurdity of attempting to change —or obliterate —history. Beatty hilariously and poignantly pinpoints the sanitization so characteristic of contemporary American national dialogue on issues of race.

In fact, the book is less a satire and more a report on the current state of racial relations in the US. Beatty injects the story with frequent historical references and statistics about income difference and policy brutality, in order to contextualize some of his more absurd subplots throughout the novel. The novel is steeped in American cultural references, such as Hominy’s longing for his days as an actor on Our Gang, a popular early-twentieth-century American series of short comedy films which masked racism as humour. Such cultural references might be more difficult for a non-American audience to fully understand. Beatty also populates the text with Spanish phrases, such as when he portrays the mixed language stream of consciousness of the Mexican Assistant Principal Molina as she speaks to her students and wonders at their chances of attending a university: ¿Cuántos irán a la universidad? ¿Online, junior, or clown college o lo que sea?” This bilingual stream of thoughts ultimately helps absorb the reader into multiple aspects of the diverse American cultural mindset.

As a result of tackling so many different issues, the novel reads at times like a collection of essays on race rather than a well-structured and cohesive story. Beatty often goes into deeply critical monologues on race which shock the reader with their boldness. The central story, however, at times gets lost in his (admittedly fascinating) musings, which distract from the central story, and make the novel more difficult to follow. Beatty’s ponderings are beautiful, however, and within them the novel becomes a stream of consciousness which reads like spoken word poetry rather than prose, sustaining his distinct voice throughout the entire novel.

The Sellout is not an easy read, from either a structural or emotional standpoint. The themes it tackles are uncomfortably relevant to modern society. But Beatty is a comedic genius who has managed to write a social commentary that is both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply insightful, leaving the reader to question every aspect of race relations in the modern world.

Rebecca Vitenzon

‘The Sellout’ is published by Oneworld Publications, RRP £8.99

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