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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book Event Guardian Live: 'The Sellout' by Paul Beatty

    The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s 2016 Man Booker Prizewinning novel looks at the topic of race in America. The book has been met with mixed reviews. Some people rave about it, extolling its brilliance and wit. Sarah Silverman commends its raw energy and humour. Others are put off by its controversial and disturbing subject matter. The Sellout focuses on the reintroduction of racial segregation in a fictional town called Dickens in Los Angeles. 

    Beatty discussed his novel at a Guardian Live Event at the British Library last year and the room was packed. He would shed light on his book, providing some background information. We were also given an insight into his writing style.

    Beatty was born in LA. He spoke of its gentrification and also of the flipside to this. According to him, it’s as if there is arbitrary segregation. There are parts of Southwest LA which are effectively no go areas. Certain communities are disappearing which he describes as LA identity erasure. In The Sellout, Dickens, an ‘agrarian ghetto’ has ‘disappeared’ from the map.

    The novel was completed a couple of years ago. It examines the United States’ complicated stance on race, past and present, pitting the Civil Rights Movement against the American justice system. Beatty has set the story in an absurdist framework employing humour to expose outrageous truths about modern day America, revealing ‘the gap between reality and rhetoric’. He discusses topics such as Barack Obama’s presidency, psychology and surfing in the context of race. Under normal circumstances much of this would be off limits. But Beatty is able to carry it off with aplomb. His brash, edgy and highly irreverent humour has been compared to that of comedian Dave Chapelle.

    The opening scene of the Sellout takes place in the Supreme Court. Here, Bon Bon the central character, is charged with breaching the constitution by segregating Dickens and Chaff Middle School. The rest is a flashback to when a young Bon Bon is home schooled by his father, a psychologist who conducts various race-related psychological experiments on him in order to publish his findings in a book. His father is accidently shot and killed by the LAPD. The book is never written.

    Beatty mentioned how he has a sense of African American history being currently revised and neutered –‘nothing’s attributable to colour anymore. It’s all mitigating circumstances’. In the novel he invents a juxtaposition of characters in order to illustrate this point. Bon Bon becomes a plantation owner after receiving a financial settlement from the LAPD, which he uses to buy a farm. He is persuaded by Dickens’ only celebrity, Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member of the kids’ comedy group the Little Rascals, to become a slaveholder against his better judgement.

    We learn that the Little Rascals are a real act, formed in the 1920s and one of the first to include African American children but playing to racial stereotypes. Hominy believes in the nobility of suffering and yearns for the ‘good ol’ days’ under subjugation. This is ostensibly one of the novel’s more controversial aspects. In truth, Hominy acts as more of a co-conspirator. He encourages Bon Bon to put Dickens back on the map, because fans of the Little Rascals (Hominy was Buckwheat’s understudy) can’t find him otherwise.

    By contrast, Foy Cheshire, who hosts a 5am TV chat show on race and is lead thinker of the Dum Dum Donut intellectuals, is set on blotting out the past, providing a foil to Hominy Jenkins. Cheshire is keen to rewrite history and produces a politically correct version of Mark Twain’s masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    So far so clear but there are issues with the book which were also revealed in this talk. As the Guardian Live event progressed it did seem like Beatty was speaking in a monologue, as if he was thinking out loud. We were expected to implicitly understand what he was saying (i.e. have an insider’s knowledge of American culture). 

    He would often wander off on tangents during the talk, just like in the novel. This won’t suit those readers who want a more linear and coherent plot. Several people have found the book difficult to read. The chapter on the careers day at Chaff Middle School drifts into surreal territory. He is very knowledgeable. The book is packed with facts and some very good jokes. In fact, it might be overloaded with information which makes it hard going at times. 

    Overall, the tone of the novel is intense but the reader is given brief respite by way of some reflective passages. Bon Bon discusses what it’s like to live in LA, to be an ‘Angeleno’. We learn that his street (Bernard Avenue) has been erased from the latest edition of the Thomas Guide to LA County. Bon Bon says, ‘finding my house in that giant tome grounded me somehow.’ The novel has a strong sense of place, highlighting the significance of belonging to a community and the right to equal justice under the law. Oddly enough, there is much mention of fresh fruit here, grown on the farm: watermelons, satsumas and pineapples. It’s as if Beatty is trying to introduce an element of wholesomeness to a sickly environment.

    He was asked what his aims were when he wrote the book. He said he didn’t really know. Perhaps he was hoping to trigger discussion and make people ask questions. Has there been any real progress since African Americans were given voting rights back in 1964? He said the novel is very ‘awake’. It certainly seems prescient and relevant in terms of the current political climate in the US, in the post Obama world.

    The Sellout is an intelligent and illuminating read with an important message, if you’re able to persevere.


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