Book review by Ellen Northrop
Paul Beatty’s biting satire of a supposedly post-racial America will make you laugh (and wince) in the way that all successful comedians do – by presenting you with the truth. It tackles contemporary issues of race in America by challenging stereotypes in a nuanced way. Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2016, The Sellout will make you baulk at its blasé tone in talking about the gritty and the hard hitting.
The narrator is only ever given a surname, ‘Me’, and grows up surrounded by his father’s racially charged psychological studies. This leads to an unconventional upbringing, which is a source of both humour and absurdity in the novel. After his father’s death, Me turns his attention to putting his LA neighbourhood, Dickens, back on the map. In the process of doing so, Me reintroduces slavery and segregation to his largely black and Latino community.
Beatty’s genius resides in the fact that a black man instigates segregation and it is a successful act, even something that is depicted as needed for the community to thrive and for different races to live alongside each other. Through this sharp social commentary, Beatty displays the impossibility of a post-racial America. From the opening line, ‘this may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything’, Beatty challenges the black stereotype, never more obvious than when he questions the way in which black people are expected to react to their own dark past.
The references to popular culture, the painfully relevant and realistic portrayal of police brutality, and the irony in the notion of ‘selling out’, make this novel a one of a kind. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into the book. Initially attracted by the good reviews and prize winning, I was caught off guard by the off-piste style. However, after persevering, I found that I didn’t want to put it down. I had to know how this outrageous book would end.
It ends with a sliver of hope that is necessary; this is not a condemning novel. It is realistic and raises a thousand more questions from the one it concludes with, ‘so what exactly is our thing?’ With Trump’s America still rife with racism, this book is not only witty and enjoyable but also an incredibly important piece of contemporary culture.