The Sellout, the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, is Paul Beatty’s latest unforgettable accomplishment.

 

Being hailed as ‘the most lacerating American satire in years’ (The Guardian), it’s caught the eye of critics around the globe, who have praised Beatty’s unique way of combining America’s racial tensions with dark comedy. However, Beatty himself has showed shock at the many reviews which label his work as ‘satire’, denying his intentions to become a satiric writer. It begs the question as to whether or not these readers are greatly missing the point; are they just using this form of comedy as a means to mask the real problem Beatty is addressing?

After reading online reviews and responses, I was shocked at the emphasis on the satiric attributes. When I finished the novel, I actually felt rather relieved. With every page, Beatty immerses you in this insane yet oddly realistic situation, where racism becomes not only the everyday norm, but also encouraged. Beatty writes in a way which makes you — especially if you are a white reader, like myself — feel uncomfortable. It’s invasive, heart-breaking, and sometimes exhausting to read. He challenges what you thought you knew and understood about form. Even though you are able to get fully immersed into the community of Dickens (the fictional town in which The Sellout is set), you also feel like you’ve only just scratched the surface of the issues, feeling very much like an outsider staring in. However, I also do not believe that I was meant to feel comfortable, or capable of empathising with the situation and/or characters. How could I possibly do that?

Without giving too much away, The Sellout is about a black man, referred to only as ‘Me’, who attempts to restore segregation to his forgotten city of Dickens, ending with a Supreme Court hearing. He captures the attention of an elderly ex-Little Rascal’s star, Hominy, who insists on being Me’s personal slave, and aiding him along his controversial overturning of the city.

The story begins with the hit-and-run of Me’s father, an eccentric sociologist who homeschools Me and attempts this embedded hatred of the white man. When Dickens is then literally wiped off of the map, Me launches a scheme to restore segregation, believing that he is simply bringing to light what is already there. The final straw comes with the segregation of the school; oddly enough, it is the white parents that prove the most sensitive to the divide, as the black children actually perform better and produce a better school when separated from their white counterparts.

Beatty highlights the racism in America that already plagues many of its black and minority citizens. The race question in America has especially been on the rise in recent years, and The Sellout makes us realise that the authorities still simply do not know how to deal with it. Beatty places two polar opposites in his novel — Hominy, the black man who made his name and living playing racial stereotypes, and eager to return to the old ways, and Foy Chesire, the washed-up local ex-celebrity who is literally trying to rewrite history through old American classics. Neither one is stable, suitable, or effective, but the effect of placing two extremes side by side within the narrative is particularly jarring and disturbing. America for years has been haunted by a type of a racism unique to its society; one that has never quite reached Europe in the same way.

We jump around in the narrative between the old and new, past and present, so much so that sometimes, it is hard to place exactly where we are not only in terms of the novel, but also within history. Clever anecdotes recounted by Me, coupled with his plight of the first re-segregated city, do actually make for a somewhat comical reading. However, to purely focus on the satire element of the novel is to largely ignore the real message of the piece; it creates a dangerous space in which readers can feel too comfortable. You then make the mistake of over-identifying with the narrative’s abstractness, while withdrawing from the rawness of the issues and their reality: the actual face of Beatty’s America.