An appropriate read for the times we find ourselves in, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout takes on institutional racism and the comfortable social definitions we welcome.
It’s hard to quantify this novel – which is a brilliant, hallucinogenic piece of work – from any kind of experience I’ve had. I could not be further removed from the protagonist’s experiences, being that this novel is set in a rural enclave of Los Angeles, and relies on a deeply entrenched understanding of what the black experience is like, and what it has evolved from.
In as much, “the n-word” is dropped with reckless abandon in The Sellout, as is the wont of its author, Paul Beatty – himself African American. One cannot in good conscience repeat many of the truisms, epithets and bleak, darkly comic notions cast onto his pages without coming off as cavalier about the weight and social heft their use contains – especially when done by your correspondent; I’m whiter than sour cream. It’s a sticky situation.
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Though a challenging read, without much of a narrative structure, the novel succeeds as a satire, for it uses the form as means of protest. The novel’s tragedy (which itself is America’s tragedy, unfurling in the advent of a Trump presidency, hand-in-hand with white nationalism and actual Nazis returning to the mainstream) is milked for comedy. For how can the absurdity of slavery, segregation and the ongoing assumptions of race be tackled any other way? When faced with oppression and disenfranchisement, laughter is perhaps the sole weapon that is left.
Beatty’s novel takes a similar approach to the absurdity of prejudice and racism in America, directed by the white majority and establishment upon the black minority, as did Spike Lee in his pointed, but unsuccessful 2000-era satire Bamboozled (therein, a black TV producer, in what is on the surface an act of self-loathing, puts together an actual minstrel show, which becomes a hit, proving his own point). The protagonist (known solely by his surname, Me) becomes through circumstance the “owner” of a slave, the former child star of The Little Rascals shorts from the ’30s and ’40s. This happens in concert with his taking action to reintroduce segregation to his local community, and finds Me eventually standing before the Supreme Court on the matter.
The Sellout is a fearless exposé of an uncomfortable truth; its words and chapters will make you laugh, and then wince at your laughter. You could not ask for a more pointed, relevant and necessary satirical tome in these times of ours.