I’m a sucker for a wild premise, so as soon as I heard about The Sellout, reading it became inevitable. The 2016 Booker Prize-winner has a gob-smacking conceit: a pissed-off protagonist comes before the U.S. Supreme Court on a litany of charges that effectively amount to reinstating slavery and segregation in his small California hometown. Seriously? Seriously!

The Sellout - Paul Beatty - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Sellout is “an absurdist comedy for our times”. You’d think, given the premise, that Beatty was inspired to write it after seeing the increasing volatility in race relations across America – but nope! He told an interviewer that, simply, “he was broke”. With the book sales and awards he’s won, I hope that’s no longer the case.

The story is largely set in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a fictional Californian town that is mostly black and mostly poor, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The narrator (who is technically unnamed, but referred to as “Me” or by his nickname, “Bonbon”) is outraged when Dickens is summarily wiped off the map, unincorporated by the powers that be. He sets about trying to return his hometown to its former “glory”, and stumbles upon an unusual way of doing so: segregating busses and schools, allowing a former child actor to be his slave, and revisiting the racist films of old.

I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering.

The Sellout (page 20)

From the outset, The Sellout has strong Portnoy’s Complaint vibes – and that’s even before the narrator starts talking about his father. They had a tenuous relationship, rooted in the fact that Daddy was an unorthodox psycho-sociologist who performed unethical and unapproved experiments on the narrator as a child. He bastardised psychological schools of thought and twisted them into strange games to test his kid’s Blackness. Reading it gave me some flashbacks to my psychology undergrad, I must admit.

I laughed out loud reading The Sellout too, frequently – but in a way that made me feel oddly ashamed. It’s a deeply satirical book. At times, I found myself wondering whether it was really “okay” for me to be laughing, given that I’m clearly not the intended audience, and many of the nuances of race relations in America would escape me. It’s the taboo that makes it funny, a lot of the time.

(Oh, and heads up: there’s a pretty graphic description of a calf castration about halfway through, and that’s really the least of The Sellout’s disturbing and distressing content.)

Beatty uses stereotypes and parody to provoke the reader, to both laughter and anger. He works in some strange moments of insight and poignancy, despite the surreal nature of the story and its characters.

When I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.

The Sellout (Page 39)

Academics and reviewers who are smarter than me have positioned The Sellout as a critique of the idea of America as a post-racial society. Basically, Beatty uses comedy and over-exaggeration to draw attention to the embedded systemic racism that persists even after a Black man won a Presidential election.

Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it well in her review, I think, when she calls The Sellout “a whirlwind of satire”. She says: “Everything about The Sellout‘s plot is contradictory. The devices are real enough to be believable, yet surreal enough to raise your eyebrows.”

I’m kind of flabbergasted, having read it now, that The Sellout won the Booker Prize. It seems like it would have been a controversial choice, to say the least. Even setting aside the racial components, it was the first American book to win the prize (traditionally reserved for English-language books not from the U.S.) since they were made eligible with a rule change back in 2002. Hats off to the judges who flew in the face of what was surely considerable opposition to get this scarily funny surreal satire the attention it deserves.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sellout:

  • “I read for pleasure and this book was not pleasurable.” – Mary McBeth
  • “Kind of like the current president. outrages but no redeeming value.” – Bahmadan
  • “If you’re a hipster, a literary critic who wants to sound hip, an academic, a Jeopardy fan, or a masochist, you’ll love this pointless mishmash filled with cultural references designed to show how brilliant the author is.” – Michael Engel
  • “Erudite vomit.” – John Updike
  • “Not really my cup of tea. If you’re OK with prolific profanity, extensive use of the N-word, and a story line that compares unfavorably to a hairball then maybe you’ll like it better.” – Craig VanArendonk