Paul Beatty, ‘The Sellout’
‘”It’s illegal to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, right?”
“Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”’
I must admit, I usually find myself disappointed by highly praised literary works. I have lost count of the amount of award winning texts that have left me cold despite the hype generated by the established critical panels. With this in mind, I picked up Paul Beatty’s fourth Man- Booker winning novel The Sellout, fully expecting disappointment. However, Beatty’s novel not only completely proved my assumptions to be ill-founded, but has also firmly rooted itself as one of my favourite reads of 2018. Uncomfortable, heartbreaking and yet jarringly hilarious, The Sellout takes aim at racism and the lasting impact of white supremacist ideology on the black community. Through savage wit, Beatty forces the reader to face the deep underlying social tensions that still prevail throughout American society.
Focussing on a protagonist known only by his surname, ‘Me’, the novel follows the narrator in his radical and outrageous scheme to reintroduce segregation in his impoverished neighbourhood of Dickens. It is through this quest that the reader is made aware of the clear hypocrisy between political correctness and the reliance on racial stereotyping in American media. This hypocrisy is outlined from the very start by our protagonist, who declares:
‘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. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of THE United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quote as comfortable as it looks.’
Addressing the reader, Beatty eviscerates the adverse racial tropes commonly used by the media; in doing so, he not only highlights the ridiculousness of such typecasting, but refuses to offer any easy explanations for his protagonist’s actions. It is in the destruction of these harmful cultural assumptions that Beatty’s angry humour is not only the most pervasively biting, but also the most successful. In the current climate of political violence and racial tension, Beatty’s scathing novel never loses sight of the fundamental issue at its very centre; the continuing institutionalised oppression of the black American community. Despite its title, Beatty’s novel is far from a sellout.
Written by Steph Reeves
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