Book Review

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

books on race loved by the privileged make me nervous

The Sellout is a funny novel, a biting social satire about race in contemporary America and the winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for 2016. It is Paul Beatty’s third novel, and though it is witty, intelligent, engaging and thought-provoking, I feel that its huge critical success is the result of its simultaneous engagement with race – and specifically taboos surrounding ideas of race – yet its failure to paint any individual white people as a villain. This is angry, race-centred, fiction where the anger is not pointed at an implied white reader, rather it is angry fiction where the anger goes inwards. Beatty’s protagonist – whose occasional nickname is Bonbon but real surname is Me – is a self-hating black man, a man who grew up in a city, Dickens, that he aims to restore – following its unincorporation – by restoring racial segregation. After segregating schools, buses and attempting to segregate a hospital, as well as owning (and paying for the whipping of by local dominatrixes) a slave, he ends up hauled before the Supreme Court where he tests the existence of civil rights legislation by being on trial for crimes that were theoretically criminalised only to help the non-white inhabitants of the USA. “Equal under law” is the oft-repeated phrase in the trial scenes, yet sought/craved discrimination is what exists elsewhere. This is a novel about race that white readers don’t read to feel an indulgent rush of liberal guilt rooted in a false self-hatred, this is a novel about race where the black characters are intellectual, idealogical and self-determining, where the bad things that happen and the good things that happen are not tied to white people. This is a novel about race where contemporary society almost gets a free pass – this is a contemporary novel about race where white people are not the villain, where instead the villains are History, Society, Tradition, Habit… All things disproportionately influenced by white people, but not white people themselves. This is contemporary black discussion of race that is intelligent and aggressive enough to be critically acclaimed for its politics and its ideas, but keeps its anger rooted towards the self, or an abstract society. This is contemporary black discussion of race for people who turn off To Pimp A Butterfly or close Claudia Rankine because it’s “too angry” and makes them feel uncomfortable. No honkys are getting offended reading The Sellout, but they recognise that it’s important, timely and relevant, but it’s not pointing a finger at them or any of their friends specifically, so they don’t feel bad and are more than happy to recommend The Sellout. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that Paul Beatty has made a very palatable novel about race because it is more exclusively about black experience in relation to other black people than most other contemporary books about race. Most essays and poems and songs that talk about race describe distinctions in a way that fosters guilt, demands change, defines what white people mean by “normal” and tells white people how black people feel in response to this. Most writing on race that is even partially aimed at a white audience knows that people like me and my wishy-washy white liberal friends (the kinda white folk who describe themselves as “woke” when they’re high) will lap it up, justifying our own failure to benefit from racial, gender or heteronormative privilege as signs that we are somewhat “better” than other people. ‘Oh,’ say the failing honkys who “care about race”, ‘I daren’t assert myself because I am good, it would be wrong of me to benefit from my privilege.’ It’s utter bullshit, because all those times I don’t take advantage of white male privilege, some other white man IS going to, and he’s probably more of a dickhead than I am. The white people who edit magazines and judge international literary awards and write reviews for newspapers that cost more than magazines, these white people may like to play the engaged liberal intellectual, but they’re not. You don’t get to positions of power without stepping on toes, standing on people’s shoulders and behaving – at some level – with self-importance. Lots of successful people don’t WANT to be reminded of their own sins. Do you think the editors of the LRB listen to Kendrick Lamar? Do you think the literary critics of the fucking Times or whatever didn’t read The Underground Railroad and comment on how the slave catcher was portrayed as human and friends with [one] black man? There aren’t really any whities in The Sellout. We are in a black world, with black farmers, black headteachers, black bus drivers, black intellectuals, black business owners, black lawyers, black judges, black television stars and black police officers. Dickens, the town in which the action happens, is a black town. The segregation the protagonist creates is false, is fake. His octogenarian slave – Hominy – is an ex-child star of a racist sitcom, desperate, in his old age, to relive the most successful moments of his life, when he was laughed at and lauded for doing nothing more than living out white people’s racist stereotypes. As a slave, he is a volunteer, and he demands to be beaten and refuses to do any work on his “massa’s” farm – he is a slave in self-identity only, beholden only for as long as he wants to be. Likewise, the signs the protagonist puts up on local buses deigning “white priority” seating are near pointless, as the bus route around the town only travels through almost entirely black and Latino neighbourhoods. Likewise, the “all white” school he creates in order to ghettoise the local, actual, school, is an entire fabrication, its entire existence merely large posters pasted over the fencing of a vacant lot. The historically racist acts that are being committed are being done by a black man, for black people, at their request. Are white reviewers frigging themselves over this book because this is how they want black people to be? Is the actual main joke of The Sellout the fact that this straight-played fantasy of a black man pushing the boundaries of acceptability by behaving like a racist, yet claiming its results are for the betterment of black people – is this book extra funny because white people have lapped it up? Does the fact that white people find this funny, have given it a major international prize because it’s “funny”, was this Beatty’s intention? Show up the white establishment by allowing them to laugh at black people segregating themselves? Turning themselves into slaves and being happier and more productive as a result? It’s dangerous, I think, the way this book has been received, and for me it was much less emotive than a lot of the other books on race I’ve read recently. It is funny, but my laughter was uncomfortable, I didn’t feel right laughing at a lot of things that were meant to be funny, but I don’t think everyone who read this got that. Yes, though, I suppose I do believe I’m “better” than most other white readers, lol. I thought it was intelligent, informative and witty, but I felt it was dark and serious, too. Don’t read it for a lorra laughs, read it for the bits that aren’t funny. A great book, a worthy Booker winner, but probably not for the reasons many people think it is. If you’re reading this and white, the more you’re laughing, the less you’re understanding. Important.

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