Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The Sellout

The Sellout The Sellout by Paul Beatty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have two distinct reactions to this much-talked about book:

1) This is easily the flat-out funniest book I’ve read since Mark Leyner’s Gone with the Mind. If you like your fiction with a triple dose of stand-up humor, this is it. I rarely went more than a page without a laugh out loud snort, and Beatty has the capacity to keep the jokes coming. Whether it’s conceptual material – like the plots of demented (and racist) lost Little Rascals shorts or the notion of a pot smoking Black L.A. farmer being charged in the Supreme Court as Me (changed from Meade) vs. The United States of America – great shtick, this just stays funny.

I enjoyed the humor here so much that I found myself taking it, uncharacteristically, in small bites. Short as this is, it took me almost two weeks to finish because I’d enjoy a piece of it and then put it down. I was never in a hurry to be finished with it; I simply enjoyed having another slice of it to get to each day.

2) This is also a sophisticated critique of supposed post-racial America. It’s so sophisticated, in fact, that I can’t quite determine the nature of its critique. At one level, it’s exploring the disturbing idea that African-Americans might somehow be softened by the absence of the overt racism. That’s certainly the surface premise: our protagonist determines he will bring back segregation and even slavery, and the results are positive (in the ironic context of the novel).

That premise is so clearly ironic, though, that the novel seems at the same time to be critiquing the idea that anything so simple could explain the condition of African-Americans in the 21st century. Rather than promoting a return to racism, it mocks easy solutions. It makes fun of the idea that there’s anything straightforward or clear about the way we understand race.

Even more deeply, though, I think this is an experiment in form, a test to see how much the novel can contain. I heard an interview with Beatty as I worked through this, and he told Marc Maron that one of his early mentors told him (and I paraphrase) that the world was going to have to learn to read him. This work mixes so many seemingly disparate and conflicting ideas and tones, that it never quite resolves into anything. As soon as it starts to feel as if it’s coherent, there comes a new element to destabilize the whole. That’s true with the frame device – our narrator lighting up a joint as his case appears before the Supreme Court – and it’s true of the addition of one character after another: his father, the ex-Little Rascal and would-be slave Hominy, his bus-driving girlfriend, and the whole crew of the Dum-Dum Donuts Intellectuals. Each new element seems to set the whole edifice wobbling again.

That strange mix often left me feeling as if I didn’t understand Beatty’s overall point. I admit I found that frustrating at times. I wanted this book to resolve itself, not just by way of plot but moreso in its tone.

As my memory of it fades, though (I finished it a couple days ago), I think I admire its irresolution all the more. Like the best stand-up comics, Beatty is true first of all to his material. He doesn’t fit his characters to some narrowly defined moral vision. Instead, he turns them loose. The result has some comforts (to go along with its many great laughs) but it has its enduring provocations as well. This book isn’t “about” anything specific. Instead, it’s a brave and unpredictable inquiry into what I might call “the weird” of contemporary race. He mines some of the least funny threads of American culture and history and dares us to laugh at them. There’s a little Mel Brooks sensibility, but there may be even greater ambition since it’s challenging the technology of the novel rather than the technology of film.

I recommend this one. Worst case scenario, you’ll laugh until you cry. Best case, you’ll realize your laughter and tears are two of the inevitable reactions to the history that’s shaped us.

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