The Sellout by Paul Beatty

This is a fire-cracker of a book. The absolutely savage satire starts right from page 1 and it continues to rampage throughout the novel … and it is briliant. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read such a brutal critique of, well, anything! The only thing I can think of that comes remotely close is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal which is almost a match for the dark humour and absurdist themes (I realise it’s probably a huge faux pas to compare Beatty to an old white guy from the literary canon but this novel easily has the credentials to become a modern classic).

The story of The Sellout is certainly absurd: the main character, Bonbon, lives in Dickens, a ghetto of Los Angeles. In the wake of Bonbon’s father’s death (he is shot by a policeman), Bonbon decides to reinstate Dickens and put it back on the map, literally. He decides the best way to do this – other than by painting an actual white line around its border (he does do this) – is by reinstating racial segregation. And the huge joke of the novel is that it seems to work. The school improves just by introducing the threat of a brand new, state-of-the-art, ‘white’ school opening next door. Crime rates go down, as evidenced by fewer violent altercations on the public buses, an issue close to Bonbon’s heart as one of these buses is driven by Bonbon’s lover. And Bonbon does manage to bring a sense of renewal and community to Dickens. But this flat description does not reflect the nuance that Beatty weaves into the narrative.

With chapter titles such as ‘The Shit You Shovel’ and ‘Too Many Mexicans’, The Sellout is a biting commentary on modern American society, one that is supposedly ‘post-racial’ but in reality is anything but. It’s a hard novel to explain and, at times, it seems to be mocking everything, including itself. It’s certainly not a plot-driven novel and there were a lot of references to American places and things that I didn’t totally ‘get’ as a British person, but neither of these things take anything away from the impact of the book.

My only criticism of the novel is that it’s definitely what you would call ‘high-brow’ and I can see why people might not like it. The endless satire and mockery sometimes makes you question yourself and it’s not always easy to know what point Beatty is making. It’s a novel that somehow manages to make you feel a bit insecure; I would describe it as like when you’re in a class or a meeting and a person across the room makes a fantastically eloquent comment, which deserves an actual round of applause because it was so good, but you’re simultaneously thinking: ‘I do not have anything to contribute that could compete with that so I’ll just stay quiet in this corner now’. I think I just admitted to feeling inferior to a book, which is a little embarassing… My long-winded point is that this book is a challenge. It makes you think, it makes you question and at times it makes you feel uncomfortable. But this, along with its devilish sense of humour, is what makes the book so great. The Sellout is fresh and different and it’s certainly got bite.


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