It was fortuitous that the book I ended up reading during my short holiday this past weekend was Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”. Last night it won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I was also lucky enough to be invited to his publisher Oneworld’s Booker party. To see the jubilation for everyone who has worked on this novel watching Beatty being honoured was wonderful and I think it was unexpected for many people, including the publishers because they also published Marlon James’ novel which won the prize last year. It may have broken my winning streak for guessing the Booker winner, but “The Sellout” is an excellent choice for its wit, ingenuity and unfettered voice which creatively raises questions about race relations in America.
The novel opens with its black narrator only known as Me being taken before the Supreme Court for owning a slave and trying to reinstate segregation in his neighbourhood – a place called Dickens which has been erased from the map. He recounts the story of his unusual life being raised by his tyrannical behavioural scientist father, living alongside a former actor named Hominy who pronounces himself to be his slave, his ill-fated love affair with bus driver Marpessa and his work growing the sweetest fruit/best cannabis on his own LA farm. After his father's death he also continues to help facilitate the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a black group that meet regularly within a donut shop to debate societal affairs. The story moves through a series of high-concept situations which outrageously play up stereotypes and explode the racial issues we normally tiptoe around in society.
This feels like a very personal novel by an author who has grown frustrated with the way the politics of race relations has shaped everything about how we conceive of our own identities and how we communicate with each other. At one point the narrator states “in ten years, through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, the people of colour, like Proposition 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension, I hadn’t spoken a single word.” His opinions about this cultural and social environment come flooding out. This book is an explosive act by someone who wants to offer a wholly different point of view.
Hominy is an actor who is the last surviving member of The Little Rascals or Our Gang and spent his life playing stereotypical roles for black actors like waiters or servants. He's internalized his subservient roles so much that he craves to be a slave who is beaten: “I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play. A slave who just happens to be an actor. But being black ain’t method acting.” One of the challenging things this novel does is question how black identity develops, how much is this identity inherent to the person or is it reflecting notions that society presents.
It's compelling and horrifying watching episodes of The Little Rascals and wondering how we should read what were meant to be entertaining funny vignettes. They make me so uncomfortable, but as with many dodgy representations of race it makes you wonder if they should be erased, seen in a social/historical context or rewritten. There are references to classic American literature throughout this novel and a man who rewrites these book from a black perspective. From this we also start to question how race is represented in films, television and literature today. In what way is racial identity sometimes used as a prop in story lines – where a bad guy might be lazily designated as such simply by being a Mexican – as frequently occurs in the show Breaking Bad.
I think something Beatty is asking us to do is look more clearly at what is being shown to us. He's questioning how much we've really moved on from outdated representations and how much social progression has really occurred. At one point he writes: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.” It's really powerful how he presents this story which occurs in a kind of murky present that can question history because it's not strictly speaking a part of it. The real and surreal playfully blend together to create an entirely different picture of our society.
While I found all this really clever and it raised a lot of interesting ideas, I felt one of the downsides of this novel is that it's more concept than story. I could feel the author's anger, frustration and biting sense of humour. But these emotions didn't come organically from within the characters acting out a plot. The story is driven by artfully composed situations which are entertaining and fascinating to read about, but weren't enough to create a dramatic suspense to draw me into the heart of the tale. Instead I simply felt compelled by the range of references and challenging points of view the author put across. I think this is a really interesting choice to win the Booker prize, but I personally don't feel as emotionally attached to it as I did reading Levy's “Hot Milk” or Thien's “Don't Say We Have Nothing”.