The Sellout, Paul Beatty

17 Mar

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

I didn’t know who Paul Beatty was a few weeks ago, when I suddenly became aware that he’s been canonized as our funniest, most relevant literary writer on the black American experience. Amazon has been bannering the websites I go to with advertisements for his book; his blurb-writers include Ben Marcus and Sam Lipstyle; Lorin Stein of The Paris Review is having a conversation with him at McNally Jackson as I type; and a link to a glowing Guardian review of the book is on the top of the blogstream at Volume One Brooklyn, also as I type.

The quote that’s going around, written by fellow black American writer Kiese Laymon for the Los Angeles Times  says “it’s fairly obvious that the United States is a Kara Walker exhibit and a Paul Beatty novel unknowingly masquerading as a crinkled Gettsyburg Address.” This is a great comparison, because like fine artist Kara Walker, Beatty takes classic racist themes and morphs them into something violent, horrible and new as a form of resistance.

From its opening passage, The Sellout takes stereotypes-head-on:

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.”

This powerful, sad, funny, obnoxious, ranting, exhaustive voice belongs to a black man variously called Bonbon or Sellout, who embarks on a quest to re-segregate a school in his suburb and to re-establish slavery there. I am supposing he does this because there is freedom in overturning convention when we discuss black history, and only by killing the sacred cows can Beatty get at something that resembles truth about what it’s like to be black in America.

Here’s how he takes down the Civil Rights Movement:

“the marchers on Washington become civil rights zombies…. The head zombie looks exhausted from being raised from the dead every time someone wants to make a point about what black people should and shouldn’t do, can and cannot have…. Under his breath he confesses that if he’d only tasted that unsweetened swill that passed for iced tea at the segregated lunch counters in the South he would’ve called the whole thing off…. He places a can of diet soda on the podium. ‘Things go better with Coke,’ he says. ‘It’s the real thing!'”

But the book isn’t really interested in segregation, slavery, or civil rights. Its true intention seems to be to recreate the cacophony of pressure and expectation placed on black Americans, which could simply be called ‘racism’ but here seems more complex, and then to resist it with Sellout’s freewheeling diatribe. Sellout is angry, making jokes and taking no prisoners about topics as varied as pressure from the black community to be the right kind of black person, pressure from yourself to be that person, pressure from a culture that imitates and fetishizes you (the name ‘Bonbon’), the sense of being under surveillance, the knowledge that if you do anything even slightly wrong you will be punished, and the expectation of hyper-sexuality, among many other things.

He says in various places, “I couldn’t care less about being black” and “Fuck being black.” But of course there’s no escape, as established by some gruesome early scenes where his behavioral scientist father tortures him while trying to condition him with appropriate black-pride racial responses. His blackness is painfully hard-wired.

Under these conditions, Beatty’s establishment of absolute freedom for his narrator to say and do whatever he wants makes sense. And it also creates a book that’s a masterpiece of gleeful line-by-line mayhem. Like, the passage where Sellout helps a gang of schoolchildren castrate a calf.  “‘Don’t they got cow rubbers?'” someone asks. Sellout replies:

“That’s not a bad idea but cows don’t have hands and, like the Republican Party, any regard for a female’s reproductive rights, so this is a way to control the population. It also makes them more docile. Anyone know what ‘docile’ means?’ … A skinny chalk-colored girl raised a hand so disgustingly ashy, so white and dry-skinned, that it could only be black. ‘It means bitchlike,’ she said, volunteering to assist me by stepping to the calf and flicking his downy ears with her fingers.”

This is difficult material that will not be for everyone. It wasn’t for me, to be honest. In addition to taking my schoolgirls and “sacred cows” (see, hilarious!?) too seriously, I found the prose funny but overly long and rambling.

I also found that the satirical plot and the humorous elements added a layer of unreality that made the potentially powerful parts less powerful. Are we supposed to feel sad about this poor little schoolgirl in the hands of a man named Bonbon who is criticizing her skin and then lets her castrate a bull? Or is it supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to feel like it even happened? I don’t know, so I don’t feel much at all.

As a statement on race, it’s incredible. As a novel, I didn’t finish it.





14 Responses to “The Sellout, Paul Beatty”

  1. Jorge Miguélez March 17, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    excellent article

    • Ivalleria March 17, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

      Thank you!

  2. Ivan Isakov March 17, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    Very nuanced and clear. Loved it!

  3. shadowoperator March 17, 2015 at 2:00 pm #

    Sounds as if you got a lot from the book, even if it was an uneven reading experience. I think I’d like to look at it in terms of what you call the pressure on African Americans, particularly since I was recently reading an article in the “New Yorker” on Langston Hughes and his reaction to the same sort of thing at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Good post, thanks.

    • Ivalleria March 18, 2015 at 12:04 am #

      I had your post about Infinite Jest in mind when I was writing this post. It would be interesting to discuss what makes us stick with long, complicated books that aren’t always fun to read and are often tedious. Of course there’s always the desire to tell self or others “I read this, thus I am smart/cool/whatever!” But dismissing that, when I’m willing to really commit to a slog, it’s usually because it has great personal resonance for me, or is just aesthetically so seductive it’s worth it. Like the work of Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I did get a ton out of what I read of the Paul Beatty book (and I skipped around through most of it) but I wasn’t personally involved enough to put the time/suffering in. And then randomly today I read this Jezebel post written by a black woman writer named Clover Hope that seemed like she feels exactly this thing Beatty is portraying, which I called “pressure” but heavens I am no expert on race. I wish I could ask Clover Hope her thoughts on Paul Beatty but those Jezebel writers get too many comments….

      • shadowoperator March 18, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

        Thanks for the links. It’s disheartening to realize how many, many different artists and writers there are around that I not only haven’t experienced, but have never even heard of before. Or if I have, I have little or no clue about their work yet. It’s a big ol’ world, that’s for sure! On the other hand, I guess, it means there’s room for everyone, and always room for a new set of interests.

        • Ivalleria March 18, 2015 at 10:37 pm #

          All the many things I have not heard of always amazes me too.

  4. TheKevin March 18, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

    Interesting you write about this. How what you’ve pointed out in this blog can be applied to a number of different types of conditioning, expectations and pressures in many people of the world. At the same time it’s like pulling the veil down and seeing it for what it is. Probably the hardest part for many people to face is the truth behind the “hype” around certain subjects one would think would die out over the years. I’ve grown up in NYC and being black myself, I find a majority of it nonsensical; I didn’t seem to find myself in situations mentioned above at all. It just further separates people as we all could be joining together, learning from one another and expanding into the future. Little by little it’s getting there.

    • Ivalleria March 18, 2015 at 10:55 pm #

      I love this comment, thanks. And I’m glad you don’t relate to Beatty’s narrator’s POV. If being black in America were something I had personal experience of, I’d probably have a more critical take on the book. I’m trying to imagine how I’d respond to similar treatment done on womanhood, but the mind boggles…..

    • scottedwardsinchicago March 20, 2015 at 12:44 am #

      Nice post, TheKevin. I grew up in the “deep South” and yeah, there were racial tensions sometimes but increasingly I found that people were just people and that I liked my black friends from the get-go and that schmucks (yeah, I even had Jewish friends in south Louisiana) were schmucks regardless of stripe. Literally, quite literally, I went from a household where my father – and I was just a kid – complained about Bill Cosby hawking goods on TV (I well remember my Dad saying, “Now why do they let that nigger sell jello?”) to a family where we enjoyed Thanksgiving with our friends (they happened to be black, our true brothers and sisters) holding hands in prayer at the dinner table. Some of it was little by little. Some of it was, like, man the world has changed! Joining together as you say. God I tire of the race bullshit. Ivalleria, I love reading your reviews. Keep going! It’s fun being in your audience. (Readers pardon my rough language.) Peace.

      • TheKevin March 20, 2015 at 9:20 am #

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts Scottedwards. It really goes to show that many people out there are starting to shake off the BS from years ago.

      • Ivalleria March 21, 2015 at 12:52 am #

        Let’s join together and defeat the nonsense, for sure. Though I have to say that the world has not changed as much as I would like. I kinda looked up from my book last night as my husband was watching some new movie with Elizabeth Banks and Larry Gilliard Jr. whose premise seemed to be “hot white girl wanders into the Hood and meets gangsters with hearts of gold.” I know it’s Hollywood, so I shouldn’t take it seriously, but couldn’t they get some characters who aren’t stereotypes? And I also, as a mother with children, am pretty appalled by how few childrens books there are with black main characters. The good news is that I think huge numbers of people in the U.S. do want to change this.


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    […] and disliked, or tried to read and not finished many of the literary entries available in the shop. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Johnathan Franzen’s Purity, The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth MacKenzie, Curtis […]

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