When you pick up The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, please don’t read the back cover. While essentially true, it has the same problem as the blurb of any good book: it oversimplifies the novel into something that it actually isn’t. The first time I picked up the book, I read the back cover and then put it down. The same process occurred the next three times I considered adding it to my ever-impending reading list. I just wasn’t interested in another anger-driven, “rage against the man,” drama-filled opinion piece. The current American political situation provides more than enough headlines of blind hatred and negativity as it is. When I finally bought the novel as part of my quest to read all the Man Booker prize-winners, I was blown away. Rather than a family drama unfolding into an outlandish scheme, the novel is—like its protagonist—intelligent, good-humoured, and fed up with a lack of action in the world around it. As a Man Booker winner, it bears greater resemblance to Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (although it is markedly more brief) than to, say, Hilary Mantel’s historical dramas or Julian Barnes’ introspective societal commentary. The Sellout is far more politically and socially relevant. While not as grounded or perhaps as intense a read as James’ masterpiece, The Sellout and its protagonist, Me, inspire more critical examination of what is going on in the news and also on campus.
Coming from a place with a very small African-American population, I tick the little-to-no experience box when it comes to the race issues plaguing the United States today. I cannot pass any judgment on the ‘truth’ or accuracy of the situation depicted in the novel. However, as a critical and literate individual, Beatty’s portrayal of an L.A. neighbourhood and its inhabitants resonated with me.
Here’s a brief, spoiler-free, and probably unhelpful synopsis. The protagonist, a man living under the shadow of his father’s memory, takes up the responsibility of reestablishing his community because he feels it has gone to shit and because no one else is going to do anything. He eventually (at least two thirds into the novel, unlike the back cover would have you believe) takes extreme measures that land him smoking his piece in the Supreme Court, the present-day situation which frames the middle, narrated in first person from Me’s memory. The plot carries itself whimsically along, but it is the narrative that really drives the novel. The novel is politically relevant without compromising the entertainment factor of its plot, complete with a farm that grows exotic fruit that I still dream about, one of the more realistic love stories I’ve read in a while, and a host of absurd but coherent and believable features. There is also a fundamental message which, despite being neither intrusive, nor thrown in your face at every turn, is impossible to miss. (And here I had dwindling hopes of contemporary literature!)
Every part of the novel contributes to the story as a whole. To single out one aspect or another would be futile, just like applauding something solely for its social views is, in my opinion, ultimately worthless. Praise given on the basis of whether or not a thing resembles you holds no value. Any old thing can agree with you, but remarkably few can think and reason for themselves; even fewer can do so in a convincing manner. Paul Beatty manages not only to powerfully express his ideas, but to do so with humour and style that doesn't devalue their importance or impact. As he said in an interview with Full Stop in June 2015 about The Sellout, “[T]here is an agenda. I think the agenda is to get people to notice the things that people aren’t noticing.” He uses fiction to explore race psychology to an extent that would never be permissible in the ‘real world,’ weaponising frustration with political correctness and general inaction. In its final ambiguity, The Sellout provides a direct conduit to reality. The lack of a satisfying conclusion regarding the fate of its main characters forces the readers to not only remember the novel after finishing it, but to actively extrapolate its consequences for themselves, bringing the fiction and non-fiction together. And really, when a good book sticks with you like that, it doesn’t truly end. What more is there to ask?