The Sellout is a blistering satire from a gifted poet and novelist. Just prepare to be uneasy!
The SelloutPublisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Length: 304 pages
Author: Paul Beatty
Publication date: 2015-03
A disclaimer: The novel in question is wildly, gleefully offensive. It's almost impossible to quote from, the sentences are so shocking. I will write respectfully here. I apologize in advance if I upset any readers.
Paul Beatty began his career as a poet. At some point, though, he decided he was irritated by the solemness and humorlessness of some canonical fiction of great African-American writers. So he penned a debut novel, The White Boy Shuffle, which was quite funny and quite un-apologetically rude. No one can emerge unscathed from a reading. Beatty has justifiably been compared to Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle. One of the more shocking twists in this debut novel was an African-American character who seemed to "enjoy" slavery -- a bit of provocation that would recur years later, in The Sellout.
Recently there was an off-Broadway play by Joel Johnson called Rasheeda Speaking. I thought of it while reading The Sellout. The play was inspired by the (white) playwright's experience at a professional institution. He felt he had been treated rudely by a (black) professional, and so he made a formal complaint. Later, to his horror, he discovered that the result of the complaint was the firing of the employee. He felt ashamed, and he took to his computer to try to express himself.
Rasheeda Speaking tells the story of a bond between a black and a white employee at a doctor's office. The doctor complains to the white employee that the black employee, "Jackie", is surly. Jackie doesn't make eye contact. She "clutters" the workspace with plants, and drips water on the floor. She isn't as early to work as her white co-worker (though whether or not she is late is left mysterious).
The white employee uncomfortably begins to monitor Jackie. She takes notes; she spies. This awkward power dynamic is revealed to Jackie who, understandably, becomes frightened and enraged. What's especially galling about the play is that the white doctor believes he isn't doing anything wrong by enlisting a worker of one race to keep tabs on a worker of another (historically oppressed) race. Things remain a mess. No one is happy at the play's conclusion.
Interviewed about the future of race in America, one of the play's stars, Dianne Wiest, said she thinks racial tension will not ever really fully abate 00 at least not until several generations of white people die off. Dan Savage said something similar about anti-gay Americans in the wake of Prop 8. Basically, he said, "Well, when hordes of hateful old people die, this country will see a brighter day." (This was part of Savage's appearance on The Colbert Report 11 November 2008.)
I suspect Beatty would agree with both Wiest and Savage. The America he depicts in The Sellout is not welcoming, and it's not pretty to look at. A man is shot and killed by white police for "driving while black". A narrator apologizes for being both black and fully innocent of most crimes, including thefts; he apologizes because he believes that this self-portrait will be puzzling and novel to the reader. A tourist gleefully compares a non-human primate to President Obama, imagining that it's OK both to formulate and articulate this comparison.
Meanwhile, another character, beaten down by years of casual and not-so-casual racism, decides to "become a slave". Life isn't very pleasant for him in the present; why not attempt a throwback to the 1700s? (Do you see what I mean when I say this book is shocking?)
In yet other climes, an African-American narrator decides he wishes to bring back segregation. Again, the present-day country isn't really working for anyone, he thinks, so why not try a "bold solution"?
It's been said that much good humor comes from rage, and there is a good deal of fertile rage in these pages. Beatty is angry at many things, not just "the usual" targets. For example, he has gone after "African-American History Month" as a cosmetic, ineffectual response to some deep-rooted problems in our country.
While reading, I happened to see a Matthew Weiner show at the Museum of the Moving Image. Weiner was talking about Mad Men, and about his desire to root the series in "tension and irony". Indeed, these are the bedrocks of good storytelling. And they're present, in spades, in Beatty's novel. Almost every sentence has a twist, a little flourish that tells you, "I mean several things other than the literal meaning of the words on this page."
There's also tension to spare. One section of the book is called "Too Many Mexicans". In another, Condoleezza Rice can barely contain herself while leering at a strapping young acquaintance. You will not breathe easily while you read this book.
That said, I felt slightly bored at times. I think this is because I was too fully aware that Beatty was crafting a product; I wasn't really "lost in the story". John Gardner has said that good fiction should be experienced as a seamless dream. The artist is so convinced of the reality of the scenes on the page, the reader forgets he is handling an artifact. (Gardner makes this argument in his seminal book, The Art of Fiction.) I didn't feel caught up in a dream while reading The Sellout. I felt as if I were holding a shiny, impressive gem by which I'm awed, but never shaken to my core or moved to tears.