Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2016) is narrated by a black resident of Dickens, an L.A. suburb. The mostly black suburb, with unfavourable crime and education stats, has been “disappeared” to save California’s prestige. The narrator’s last name is Me; he is nicknamed Bon Bon because he’s a good luck charm; and some pretentious black intellectuals, whom the narrator calls “wereniggers” (see: werewolves) call him the sellout for abandoning his father’s ultra-race-conscious academic ideals. The Sellout is a tour de force of sociopolitical satire both biting and humane, sharpeyed and goodnatured.
To say Beatty spraypaints his Man Booker Prize-winning novel with the word “nigger” is an exaggeration, but only slightly. He reclaims the word. I approve of his decision – as far as I, an Indian woman living in India, am allowed to approve of a black man calling black people “niggers.” Words can be razor tools to cut open a soul. But words can be reclaimed. I understand the power of words to hurt – I’ve been called crazy, fat, and black – by my fellow Indians who shun dark skin. But I oppose banning words. There are much more meaningful ways to change behaviour than by banning words.
Just as Beatty reclaims the word “nigger,” so he joyfully snatches up, show-juggles with, and shreds the whole gamut of stereotypes about African-American culture. Stereotypes involving gangs, giant penises, servility, and broken families. Bon Bon is raised by a single father, a prominent black sociologist who home-schools Bon Bon, runs behavioural experiments on him, conditions him to fear and hate the white man, and trains him to succeed himself as “nigger-whisperer” – saving black individuals about to commit suicide for silly reasons. Beatty looks at the white mast of political correctness, and peppers it with grapeshot. All he leaves is a tapestry fretworked with exquisite punctures.
The Sellout opens with a Supreme Court case. Bon Bon stands accused of reinstating slavery and racial segregation.
The slave ownership happened by coercion: Hominy, a black man whom Bon Bon saved from suicide, insisted on being Bon Bon’s slave. Hominy sasses through the novel: performing purely symbolic services like offering his back as footstool, while being worse than useless on Bon Bon’s farm. (Bon Bon grows designer fruit in his backyard: uniquely shaped watermelon, and orgasmic satsuma. Also superlative strains of marijuana.)
But the racial segregation was deliberate. For a birthday-gift to Hominy, Bon Bon tries segregating a bus, and notices the positive effects on passenger behaviour. In an extrapolation that would make proud his dead father (shot by police for driving while black), Bon Bon decides to segregate the local school. The results he predicts, he gets: the all-black school turns its fortunes around and achieves within months such astronomical academic excellence that, for the first time, white parents want to send their children to Dickens’s public school. Bon Bon points them to the fake white academy he is building across the street.
The first third of The Sellout’s 288 pages is hilarious. After that, Beatty recycles himself. The plot about the love of Bon Bon’s life, Marpessa, is wandering and ultimately irrelevant. I would’ve enjoyed getting to know Foy Cheshire, the leader of the faux-intellectuals and the book’s chief antagonist. As it is, Foy remains a theatre-mask. This is true to some extent of most of the book’s characters – though Hominy, for instance, is shown to be capable of playing the ‘foolish black slave’ and snapping back to a free man’s pert rationality at a moment’s notice. The Sellout is excellent, but not great. Mesmerised by its brilliantly coloured flat characters, it the novel misses opportunities to humanise its characters. Eager to keep the tone light, the personal tragedies and systemic oppression the novel so earnestly wrestles with lose the full weight of their gravity. Ultimately, I’ll remember The Sellout for linguistic pyrotechnics, for impressive historical and cultural scholarship, for resplendent caricatures, and for perfect irreverence. For its humour.
The Sellout is a satire. Beatty has said that critics have treated his work as a work of comedy in order to sidestep the novel’s serious engagement with race issues. His point is well-taken: if those in power can dismiss a work of art as purely goodnatured, they can escape an uncomfortable dialogue. But The Sellout becomes its own parody. Masterfully written, often laugh-out-loud funny, The Sellout’s own comic genius may stand in its way of triggering serious dialogue.
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