“I’m trying to think of a book – but almost anything will do, really – think of whatever’s number fifteen on the best-seller list now, written by a white writer. It has nothing to do with blackness or Asianness or Latinoness, or whatever. I think that’s as much a comment on race as anything else, whether the writer realises it or not. And the problem is we don’t think of it like that. We just think they’re writing about the common experience, we think it’s just the way the world is.”
In the last scene of The Sellout, a novel about race in America, an African-American stand-up comedian, in a work which has already called out almost all African-American stand-up comedians as unfunny and unoriginal, confronts a white couple in his audience: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!” [p. 287] The narrator, an African-American who has spent most of the novel holding slaves and re-segregating his community, wonders what “our” thing really is. In Beatty’s vision, it is occluding by talking about race elliptically.
“Is integration, forced or otherwise, social entropy or social order?” asks the narrator earlier in the book. “No one’s ever defined the concept” [p. 168]. The Sellout is a novel which seeks to enact race relations in America absurdly, in an attempt to really talk about it. In that same Paris Review interview, Beatty questions the labelling of his latest novel as a satire, and the focus on its comedy, and wonders if this isn’t a way to avoid looking closely at what the novel is saying. I think that’s right: there are many good jokes in this novel, many aimed squarely at the traditional spokespeople of African-Americans (a well-meaning academic invents an alternative office package called EmpowerPoint, rewrites F Scott Fitzgerald as The Great Blacksby); there are even more memorable comic episodes, most notably the one with which the novel opens, as the narrator gets high on the floor of the Supreme Court; but The Sellout isn’t a comic satire because it is too expansive for that. Better to call it an absurdist parable, a version of our own world pushed to the Nth degree in an attempt to foreground concerns at which we usually prefer not to look directly.
What The Sellout suggests is that we are all fretting about race without thinking about race. Like the best-selling white writer encoding his whiteness as the norm, or the black stand-up comedian defining his community against that same set of assumptions, our gaze bends around race’s gravity. We don’t look at it square-on. We do so in some cases out of the best of intentions, out of a desire to reach the post-racial uplands promised to us by an Obama presidency; but in doing so we gloss over too much. The humour, the sheer rate of comic incident in this novel, proceeds out of Beatty – and his narrator – refusing respect to the shibboleths which have been built along these careful demarcations in our willingness to understand. “I’m no Panglossian American,” the narrator insists early on. “And 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” [p. 23].
Beatty is not, of course, advocating the return of slavery. But his narrator, whom he cannily only ever names “Me” (“a not-so proud descendent of the Kentucky Mees” [p. 21]), rather is – and he does so because he starts to attend to the actual problems on the ground. “Growing up” under the tutelage of his social studies professor father, “I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if only we had a motto” [p. 10]; but when Hominy, an erstwhile child actor who in the 1940s played racist, slapstick bit-parts in the Our Gang series, begs, desperate and depressed as their once-proud neighbourhood of Dickens is literally wiped off the map, to be Me’s slave, his reasoning is brutish: “right now, massa, you ain’t seeing the plantation for the niggers” [p. 80].
Now, look. I’m not only white, but a white male; I’m not only that but English, and writing this in one of the capitals of the transatlantic slave trade, Liverpool. Get the fuck out – this is our thing. The Sellout doesn’t want my sage nods, aims its fire necessarily and importantly as much outwards as inwards. “White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except ‘We have no vacancies,’ ‘You missed a spot,’ and ‘Rebound the basketball,’ finally have something to say to us … on hot 104-degree San Fernando Valley days, when we’re carrying groceries to their cars or stuffing their mailboxes with bills, they turn and say, ‘Too many Mexicans'” [p. 153]. I’ve been in the room when white Americans have suggested Obama shouldn’t get the Latino vote because he might not be “their” friend (since a black president can’t be expected to rule for the common good like a white one); the clear-eyed conversation about race may not be best started by pasty folks like me.
But Beatty sees the task as a shared one. In a memorable episode, Me recalls a childhood trip to Mississippi, occassioned when he insisted to his father that racism was over. Driving immediately to the Deep South, Me’s father insists his son eyeball and wolf-whistle a white woman on a semi-rural Main Street – and pay the consequences. The apparent crackers simply continue their conversation about one of their number’s bisexuality, and Me’s father disappears in the car with their chosen target, who it turns out quite likes black men; the problem is not so much race as assumptions about it. The Sellout is a relatively optimistic book – but it’s hopeful side demands a lot of its readers: their careful attention.
The novel’s voice, Beatty’s prose style, embodies those demands. It is full-throated and insistent, and its consistency is no doubt a large part of why the novel has been shortlisted for the Booker in the first place: it has the completeness of His Bloody Project, the follow-through of Eileen, and a totality and depth of purpose that both lack. This pungency is central to the effect of the novel, to the feeling it gives of being slapped around – which is so crucial to its goal of waking us up:
Washington D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like Ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of Ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms). Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shod Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungles, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-Jeanette yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks. [p. 4]
This is dense stuff, and yet also demotic: The Sellout is not one of those literary novels which conspires to confound; it wants to be understood whilst casting our perceptions afresh. That said, Beatty does have his less sure-footed moments: “kind kindhearted plantation owners,” an insistence that shouting “Here comes Frederick Douglass … Run for your lives” sends Hominy fleeing for the hills, or ropey syntax such as “Billy said, after swallowing a mouthful of a peanut butter – and judging from what appeared to be bug legs on his tongue – and flies sandwich” [p. 186]. Sometimes The Sellout feels not entirely in control of itself, as if it is straining to contain everything Beatty tries to squeeze into it (and, more or less, he tries to squeeze in everything – a “presidential” gorilla named Baraka, a rueful recreation of Compton, a wistful romance). This might be an unfair criticism; but it’s true.
It’s a also true that the novel sometimes goes out of its way to outrage, and in so doing doesn’t feel so different to the sort of Chris Rock routine it pretends to despise. At one point, George W Bush is described as “the first coon president” [p. 240]; at another Hominy is whipped by a glamorous dominatrix wearing only a Union kepi. Beatty might want to claim more for his novel than mere satirical bite, but in these moments he appears to be aiming for little else. “What does that mean, I’m offended?” Me demands. “It’s not even an emotion” [p. 130]. It may not be, but it is a response – and a valid one. Beatty understands its potential, but perhaps not always the limits of its elasticity.
All that said, The Sellout is one of the most complete American novels I’ve read since the financial crash, which itself heralded Obama’s period in office – and this means it is also so far the best novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It is timely but also perennial, of high style but also unafraid of low comedy. If it occasionally reaches too far, that is only because it is deservedly confident of its grasp.