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Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty was the book chosen for this month’s Ark Audio Book Club out tomorrow (somehow). In this review, Macon Holt grapples with how to write a review of a book so close to perfection the critic has nothing to add, and the potential of the politically incorrect.

The Sellout was the best book I read in 2017. This is a startlingly unoriginal opinion (except maybe that I’m proclaiming it a year after it won the Man Booker prize for fiction). With this novel, Paul Beatty has produced a masterpiece that is as instructive as it is entertaining, that illustrates the work required by the craft of writing but that somehow retains the spontaneity of unmediated ideas themselves.

The novel tells the story of a black American man named _______ Me (AKA Bonbon), an urban farmer living in Dickens, a struggling town in greater L.A. Bonbon’s father was a frustrated academic psychologist and black liberation activist—the particular combination of which leads to a rather difficult upbringing—who was gunned down in cold blood by the LAPD. Later, Me’s elderly neighbour, Hominy Jenkins, a retired, former child-, actor in incredibly racist comedy films, tries to kill himself before Bonbon saves him. Hominy is adrift in a world built on the myth of a post-racial society and, to get some sense of order back, offers himself up to Bonbon as a slave (albeit a useless one). This leads Bonbon on a path to confront the successes and failures of the civil rights movement and the hypocrisies of conservatism and liberalism in ever more provocative ways. Ultimately, as we see from the book’s opening, this ends us placing Bonbon before the U.S. Supreme Court to answer for the crime of calling bullshit on the American dream.

As I wrote in a previous recommendation, when a book displays the kind of quality as The Sellout does, the role of the critic seems somewhat superfluous. That which is problematic in the novel, Beatty address as such through a triple motion of reflection, audience interrogation and humour (a word that seems too weak to describe something that produces the scale of laughing fits that this book does). Any gaps in the Beatty’s engagement with his subject matter are rendered invisible but the sheer volume of reference and angles he uses to address it. Yet nothing is superfluous. The level of craft found in this novel means that it is anything but cluttered. While you may be exhausted by the density, this is an exhaustion of satisfaction rather than confusion.

In a novel about the legacy of white supremacy and slavery, there are a great number of themes that can be churned up and many of them are rife with absurd contradiction. As we see in this passage, Beatty is aware of the historical sensitivities but transgresses them anyway.

So the question remains: what is a critic to add if there is almost nothing to criticise? The answer that I come to is to offer a reading. To do the thing that we always claim literature does; start a conversation. In my reading of The Sellout, and in conversation with other readers, one subject struck me almost more than the ostensible subject matter: political correctness.

I imagine some would consider Beatty’s novel, because it is, despite its levels of irony and willingness to complexify assumptions, clearly anti-racist, to be politically correct. These people are, for the time being, unreachable as for them attacking political correctness is simply a way to justify racism. If there is to be a discussion about the good and ill of political correctness, it needs to be clearly separated from the simple reproduction of prejudice. So Instead, I am more interested in the enjoyment of The Sellout’s political incorrectness. Beatty deploys a wide range of obscure racial epithets to simultaneously skewer the stupidity that allows racism to persist and disjunct between the virtues of offence experienced by those ostensibly fighting against racism while effectuating very little to change the material circumstances of white supremacy. Take for example the following passage from early on in the book as Bonbon reflects on his new role as a reluctant slaveholder:

“They say “pimpin’ ain’t easy.” Well, neither is slaveholdin’. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don’t do what you tell them to do. And when your eighty-some-odd-year-old black thrall has maybe fifteen good minutes of work in him a day and enjoys the shit out of being punished, you don’t get many of the plantation perks you see in the movies either. No woe is me, “Go Down Moses” field singing. No pillowy soft black breasts to nuzzle up to. No feather dusters. No one says “by and by.” No fancy dinners replete with candelabra and endless helpings of glazed ham, heaping spoonfuls of mash potatoes, and the healthiest-looking greens known to mankind. I never got to experience any of that unquestioned  trust between master and bondsman” (81)  

In a novel about the legacy of white supremacy and slavery, there are a great number of themes that can be churned up and many of them are rife with absurd contradiction. As we see in this passage, Beatty is aware of the historical sensitivities but transgresses them anyway. The world he inhabits is one almost irreparably scared by a million traumas going back centuries but that today are subject to complex mediation, despite also being lived. Put another way, it is easy to find agreement with the statement that racism is a bad thing but much harder to cultivate an effective impulse to doing something about it. Thus trying to confront this trauma with head-on sincerity results in little more than the polishing of a fetish; turning the complexities of those who have suffered into only their suffering itself. Even though this historic trauma perpetuates such suffering in the present through the material consequences of white supremacy, there remains something almost unimaginable about the experience of human bondage that prevents its seriousness from being directly acknowledged. This leaves Beatty unable to take seriously the need to treat the subject with reverence as reverence seems like a shortcut that allows its practitioner a pass from actual engagement. The reason why the political incorrectness of this passage and throughout the book seems so valid, if not downright vital, is not down to some vague notion of literary and expressive freedom but rather almost the exact opposite; it seems like a hard-earned necessary response to the something so important that addressing it as such would trivialise it.

You can find an interview with Beatty on the BBC News show Hardball online, in which the presenter while espousing praise on the book, rehearses the tired trope that a white person could not have written The Sellout. To which Beatty coolly, if a little frustrated, responded that he doesn’t think anyone else could have written The Sellout but him. This is not only an accurate account of the phenomenology of novel writing but it also points to something often missing when one makes claims about the role of identity in politics. Namely, what is identity? Aside from the obvious point that everyone is an individual with their own take on things, Beatty’s response helps to clarify identity as a contingent process rather than a static label. Beatty was not able to write The Sellout because his body displays certain characteristics deemed to be of cultural significance. Beatty was able to write The Sellout because he has lived in a culture wherein having such a body is, a priori, taken to be meaningful, which has allowed him to accrue a particular set of experiences, whilst the culture, of which he is a part, has also changed. But at the same time, as necessary as it is to collect the experiences of having a culturally significant body, it is equally essential that he has spent around 30 years honing the craft of writing, which has allowed him to produce a work of such high quality as The Sellout.   

Paul Beatty

When the interviewer claims that a white person could not have written The Sellout, there is some truth to this idea but is far from the absolute it is presented as. Certainly, if a white writer had used the same racially charged language in a novel, there would be some trouble in the press, but I wonder if there is perhaps something more substantive at stake here. On a basic level it is true that only Paul Beatty could have written it, but let’s say we simply mean a book that engages in a similar project through a similar method and of similar quality.  Would a white writer be criticized for the liberal use of the N-word that we find in Beatty’s novel? More than likely. But even so, it is the way in which the N-word is deployed by Beatty, which is suggestive of a writer who knows its power. This doesn’t mean he is overly careful with its use; treating it with kid gloves and manipulating the audience towards moments of portentous shock. Nor does he devalue this by using it as an all-purpose modifier. Rather Beatty engages the N-word as a social fact, as something that is lived with and produces its own absurdities. Absurdities of both racism and some of those who fight against it. So, more interesting than whether a white writer would be criticized for writing such a book is the question, could they be defended for having done so. Could the work support a generous reading? To the extent that any given white writer has access to these skills and experiences, it may have been possible to produce as similarly outstanding work on the subject. But, as we live in the world that we do, this is a moot point.

The Sellout explores the possibilities and limitations of transgression and the impotence and importance of identity with a deftness and density that I have rarely seen before. Almost nothing comes out unscathed, least of all the narrator, but each scathing feels justified and necessary.

To expand on this, the position of whiteness in the West allow those with bodies coded as such to flit between topics and ‘do their homework’ as preparation. I wrote briefly last year about Michel Houellebecq’s completely disengaged approach to writing about Islam in the West in Submission (2016). This was a clear example of the wrong person being tasked with writing on a particular topic. This was not because Houellebecq lacks the capacity as a writer or that he had not done his homework, but that to him Islam was homework. Houellebecq attempts to address Islam were performed with all the interest and enthusiasm as an average child spending an evening with some rote trigonometry.

Though we should be clear that the issue here is not the boredom but the profunctorary. Beatty’s narrator is bored with the issue of race in the U.S., but through the tone of writing we see a character whose boredom expresses a preference and desire:

“Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have had the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I’m left-handed.” (257)

It is in these moments wrapped in-jokes that we see the book’s at once more modest but truly important aim; to express the desire to not be defined by the markers of identity and the burdens of history they imply, and knowledge that complete escape is impossible and perhaps even undesirable. Literally, the only way out of this situation would be to be the son of Darth Vader (impossible), which would cost him something anyway (his right hand) but there is the benefit of no longer “being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it.” What’s more, contained herein is an incisive critique of white privilege. White people in the West don’t have to ever decide if they give a shit about being white but, in the world in which we live, this too is crippling albeit less so. It’s in these moments of ignoble frustration that tragic beauty comes through in The Sellout, as the messiness of history trips up the present and the immediacy of the present disregards history.

To round this off so you can get to the reading of the novel itself. The Sellout explores the possibilities and limitations of transgression and the impotence and importance of identity with a deftness and density that I have rarely seen before. Almost nothing comes out unscathed, least of all the narrator, but each scathing feels justified and necessary. There is an object less here for critics of political correctness: it is harder than you think to make political incorrectness worth reading. There is value in challenging practices such as empty virtue signalling and unthinking piety, but it is all too easy to do this for its own sake. If you want to criticise something of the accepted response to oppression, you have to tell us something we don’t know and leave us enlightened (not about like some kind of Illuminati conspiracy headed by Beyoncé, because we already know idiots think that is a thing).  But above all, I have rarely if ever laughed so hard reading a novel while being so engaged with the complexities of its subject. The Sellout is a vital book for our times.

The Sellout will be in stock at Ark Books in early January.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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