Wednesday, November 2, 2016
"The Sellout" by Paul Beatty
So, I finished The Sellout, but I'm truthfully still unsure what to say about it. It's clearly a biting commentary on race in modern America, and I get that, but while reading I constantly felt like I wasn't getting the novel itself. I felt perhaps like my students do when we read Huck Finn: I know there's satire there, but it's too over my head to talk about it.
And that realization makes me wonder how insulated I am from racial politics in America. I read and listen to the news, and I consider myself a generally thoughtful liberal educator, but am I only giving serious racial issues lip service?
Regardless, I'll cover what I did get. The key point is that the narrator, Bonbon, seeks to address racial issues in his town of Dickens by re-instituting discriminatory practices: segregating public busing and schooling, even taking on a slave (albeit an unwanted volunteer slave). As a result, his black community of Dickens actually improves.
Here's what I got from it: racism and discriminatory practices still exist today, but they're much less blatant than they were in the past. After all, we're no longer legally barring African American children from attending all-white schools or shouting racial epithets in the street. Because we've abolished much of the most overt racism, there's often a sense that we've "solved" racism--that it's no longer an issue. But it's still present and harmful. What Bonbon's action do, then, is make overt what's become covert, and it's that bringing out to the surface that allows change to happen.
In skimming over some of the Amazon reviews, I noticed that many compare Beatty's structure to a stand-up comedian's routine, and thinking about the novel like that, rather than a traditional literary narrative, probably would help a reader enjoy it more. The opening section, in which Bonbon philosophizes as he waits for his case to be heard before the Supreme Court, can be draining on readers expecting plot and characters.
Ultimately, I'm not left with a good verdict about The Sellout. I think it's a book best enjoyed in small chunks followed by discussion, rather than an "absorb yourself in a read" kind of way. I missed too much, though ultimately I blame myself rather than Beatty.