When Barack Obama became President of the United States, many hoped the nation’s racial traumas might start to heal. Instead, his presidency has exposed disturbing bigotry and anger, notably in this election year. For African-American writers this paradox is a particular problem. How to write literature dramatising racial oppression when a black man is in the White House?
The approach of Paul Beatty, born in 1962 in Los Angeles, is to throw caution to the wind. His fourth novel, The Sellout, is an outrageous scattergun satire taking aim at racism and what racism has done to black Americans. Earlier this year, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is now on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. The Sellout aims to do for race relations what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – a favourite novel of Beatty’s – did for the Second World War.
Paul Beatty becomes first US author to win the Man Booker prize with racial satire The SelloutPlay! 00:32
The novel begins with our narrator Bonbon on trial at the Supreme Court. His opening line: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” It’s a fair reflection of the book’s gleefully provocative tone. What he is actually on trial for is – wait for it – trying to reinstitute slavery and segregation in his Los Angeles suburb.
The ghetto is called Dickens (a nod to another literary inspiration) and resembles the real-life Compton. Bonbon was raised by a single father, a thoughtful man who specialises in quietly calming down angry black men. After his father is shot dead by police, Bonbon is on his own. Consumed by guilt and anger, he takes on an ageing black actor and makes him his slave. The twisted logic (if there is one) is that to become successful, he needs to become “white”, and to do that he must first dominate another black person.
His painful comic riffs on what it means to be accepted by mainstream (in other words, white) culture are the book’s highlight: “I was the ‘diversity’ the school trumpeted so loudly in its glossy literature, but there wasn’t enough financial aid in the world to get me to suck the gristle from a leg bone in front of the entire freshman class.” Beatty is just as harsh on the foibles of black America: “I didn’t ruin his dreams by telling him that black people do all think alike. They won’t admit it, but every black person thinks they’re better than every other black person.” One of the funniest characters is a permanently outraged academic called Foy Cheshire, who re-writes Huckleberry Finn replacing the “repugnant ‘n-word’” with “warrior”, and “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer”.
At one point, Bonbon confesses that he fell asleep while reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise, a novel about an all-black town in Fifties America. But clearly he takes some inspiration from it, hence his devilish plan to reinstate black pride by segregating the races. “Apartheid united black South Africa, why couldn’t it do the same for Dickens?” he asks.
Beatty’s sharp humour challenges pieties from all sides, while never losing sight of the fundamental issue: America’s racism and the legacy of slavery. Intelligent and entertaining as it is, though, I’m not sure The Sellout adds up to a novel. It’s more a series of stand-up routines stitched together, the author barely drawing breath before the next joke. It’s exhilarating but exhausting. The reader is left little time to reflect and must largely do without the traditional pleasures of a novel – well-made characters and a consistent plot.
I’m not sure Beatty cares. His novel takes cracks at the expense of more conventional authors, whom he mocks for performing to white audiences. But his own novel is on the dangerous path to success – a literary double-bind encapsulated in the title. If Beatty’s book is likely to sell out, must he also have sold out?
The novel ends, appropriately, at a stand-up show. The narrator sees a black comedian berating a white couple for laughing at jokes aimed at his community. “Get out,” he says. “This is our thing.” Beatty seems to be asking: is it all right for non-black people to laugh at The Sellout ? Bonbon’s answer is, characteristically, also a question: “So what exactly is our thing?”