Date finished: January 15th 2017
I have a short, strained relationship with the Man Booker Prize. This is the fourth Man Booker Prize winner novel I’ve read. I’ve also read ten shortlisted nominees, so I feel I’ve sampled just enough to be able to say: it’s hit and miss. The ’98 and ’99 winners, Amsterdam and Disgrace, respectively, were mediocre works of literature if I ever I did read any. Among the nominees I’ve read – The Satanic Verses, J, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, England, England, Cloud Atlas, On Chesil Beach, Nice Work, Small World, Flaubert’s Parrot and The Comfort of Strangers – all were undoubtedly unique, but, for some reason, Man Booker nominees and winners rarely – to put it crudely – score more than a 6 or 7/10 for me. They just fail to live out their potential as well as they should. Maybe it’s just me. The only exception is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which has pride of place as one of my favourite novels of all time. Other than that, Booker novels have never managed to stand-out to me.
Well, that is, until now.
The Sellout follows an unnamed narrator’s life in the poor, predominantly black city of Dickens, California. He grows up subject to his father’s somewhat unhinged psychology experiments and lessons on black history. After his father is killed, and the town wiped off the map for being an embarrassment, the protagonist, tending his farm and muddling through a confused life, tries to rejuvenate Dickens in a rather original way: segregation.
“I met interesting people and tried to convince them that no matter how much heroin and R. Kelly they had in their systems, they absolutely could not fly”.
Beatty’s prose is verbose, frenetic and often hilarious. It’s hard to think what could be funny about a satire of race in modern America considering how awful the situation can be, but Beatty’s acerbic tongue, Pynchonesque absurdity and Heller-ian wit turn this from dry polemic to comic masterpiece. You shouldn’t laugh, but you can’t help it when the protagonist recounts the various psychological experiments his father subjected him too, or the birth of gangster rap (a black man drunk off his face raps a ghetto version of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson). Beatty takes horrific circumstances and renders them absurd in such a way as to be both hilarious and discomfiting. Supporting character Hominy is a case-in-point. The former “token” black character on Little Rascals, Hominy is now senile and desiccated, and finds perverse pleasure in being humiliated and “enslaved”. Beatty goes about it in a funny way, but if you think for more than five seconds it’s bitterly tragic.
“It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, right?”
“Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”
But it’s not just absurdity. The Sellout is driven by a palpable sense of anger and despair at the utter madness of society’s approach to racism – from the inequality, to talk of reparations, to every sort of racism, to attempts to whitewash history – nothing is safe from Beatty’s scathing attack. It’s a novel that’s sure to stir up some valuable and pertinent debate, and that’s never a bad thing.
“If he was indeed an “autodidact,” there’s no doubt he had the world’s shittiest teacher.”
The comic novel is a rare thing – I should know, I’m always on the hunt for one. I can count the authors who’ve made me weep with laughter on one hand, but I’m happy to count Paul Beatty among them. The man has a gift for language and revels in a malevolently playful sense of pastiche and word-play. In The Sellout Beatty has crafted a novel that does for race that which Catch-22 did for war, and David Lodge did for universities. He climbs inside every facet of race, turns them inside-out and renders them absurd. Beatty’s not arrogant enough to proselytise answers, but he asks some very important questions of us. And that’s what great satire is all about.
“…you have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? And how may I become myself?”