The Sellout tells the implausible yet hilarious story of a black man who lands himself in Supreme Court for reintroducing segregation in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens, a forgotten place on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Born to a psychologist dad, the protagonist leads a rather different childhood as a subject to his father’s experiments. He remains anonymous throughout: the same way test-subjects usually are left unidentified. Characterised by a first person perspective, the protagonist’s strongly animated voice offers not only comedy, but also a thought-provoking stance on racism, as the he sets of on a mission to put Dickens’ back on the map.
The theme that lies at the heart of this novel is the sentiment that “racism humbles”. Paul Beatty develops this arguably counter-cultural world idea throughout the novel, including the episode during which the protagonist places a sign on a bus stating ‘priority seating for seniors, disabled and whites’. This echoes the historical moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. The effect of this sign in the novel challenges the reader’s outlook; for as the customers suddenly become uncharacteristically polite, we see the idea of racism humbling a community starting to become a reality.
Paul Beatty also effectively draws and subverts common practices, which are often used as tools of oppression and racism. A powerful example is his burning of books, reminiscent of the books burned in the Nazi regime. However, the books being burnt in the novel are Foy Cheshire’s rewritings of English classics, changing the main characters into Black figures: yes, there is even The Great Blacksby.
Character development also lies at the heart of this novel. Paul Beatty effectively creates a changing area with varying characters within. In the same way that the ghetto of Dickens seems to be going back towards segregation, the protagonist is going back emotionally, as he rekindles his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. This happiness is cleverly juxtaposed by Foy Cheshire’s gradual madness as the book reaches its end.
This novel culminates in the protagonists’ establishment of a segregated schooling system. The protagonist, however, interestingly argues “Chaff Middle School had already been segregated and re-segregated many times over, maybe not by color, but certainly by behaviour level.”
It is clear from Paul Beatty’s witty writing style that he successfully creates (and carries out) a highly far-fetched plan, conducted by an equably amusing protagonist. That said, underneath this proposal lie some very thought provoking concepts. It is through challenging many presuppositions about today’s society that Beatty’s novel presents itself as a must-read for anyone stuck in a Western World mind-set. Looking back, it could be argued that the thin plot is drawn out for an unnecessarily long time. However, considering its shortlisting for the Man Booker prize, The Sellout undoubtedly has rewarding qualities. It clearly shows a distinctive new area of thought, through a familiar use of first person comedic narration, and therefore is a worthy contender for the title.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oneworld Publications, 2015)
Photo credit: Pixabay