Lee Strasberg could teach you how to be a tree, but he couldn’t teach you how to be a nigger. – Paul Beatty, The Sellout
If I had only one word to describe it, I would use the word “relentless”. If I had three more, I would say, “savage, utterly savage”. If I had the opportunity to check myself and be politically correct, I would say, “by savage, I do not mean to be literal, of course.” However, my correction would fall weak, and such is the thin ground we are dealing with here. Even if that thin ground is what we’d like to call Planet Earth.
The Sellout is not an easy book to talk about. I cannot use words like “refreshing”, “must-read”, “hilarious”, “timely” and “relevant” to satisfactorily describe and entice you to grab a copy and add to its success. It is not a political statement. It is not even a statement about the futility of making political statements. It has been called Swiftian (as in Jonathan, the 18th century Irish satirist, not Taylor, the 21st century American singer), but it is too comprehensively satirical, inside and out, to be considered in that mould. It does not feel familiar, and yet, you cannot call it “edgy”, the way we like to call all new things edgy (thus, not being much edgy at all).
It can be described as the story of a young, African-American man with an absolutely terrifying upbringing, trying to make his city of a predominantly African-American population called Dickens, relevant in contemporary times. But, he’s the opposite of every Hollywood underdog with a purpose, for he takes a good long time, and many, many digressions of flashbacks, musings on African-American life past and present, and his basic ineptitude to be the man he would like to be, to get to fulfilling his mission.
One minute you are invested in figuring out how to get Dickens back on the map, next you chuckle at some brilliantly ironical statements about being black (or for that matter, simply “diverse”) in America, until you’ve read a hundred pages and you still don’t know if it is going to go anywhere. Will it have its winning moment, or will it offer a bleak, cynical future. Or will it just go on with Bonbon (our protagonist and narrator, the under-underdog) trying to get Marpessa to be with him, or reiterating yet another horrifying experiment his tragically-killed psychologist father conducted on him for which he should have, justifiably, gone to prison.
It is very much a novel dominated by characters, many of whom I can’t definitely call “flat”, but are nevertheless predictable and after a point, annoying. Bonbon’s love interest Marpessa is still given some relative ambiguity, even a humanity that is lacking in some of the others, though for a book that highlights some aspect of African-American life in a highly quotable fashion in every page, there isn’t as much of an exploration of the experiences of African-American women.
But, perhaps, I am not qualified to make that statement. I am not aware of many references made in this book, because my knowledge of African-American life is limited to whatever I know of African-American music, film, literature and a sprinkling of politics. In my normal reading experience, this would not be a problem, because the very point of reading is to get to know other lives, other worlds. But, The Sellout compels you to examine yourself, your life, your context. The darkest recesses of your mind, things you feel that you will not admit to, but that influence everything you do. Though it might seem specific and timely in terms of the issues it deals with, its universal appeal lies in its unforgiving observation of our values, something that is absolutely necessary in a time when we cannot speak as freely as we could even in the recent past.
I end with, what is in my opinion, the best passage in the book:
They come to L.A. aspiring to be white. Even the ones who are biologically white aren’t white, white. Laguna Beach volleyball white. Bel Air white. Omakaze white. Spicolli white. Brett Easton Ellis white. Three first names white. Valet parking white. Brag about your Native American, Argentinian, Portuguese ancestry white. Pho white. Paparazzi white. I once got fired from a telemarketing job, now look at me, I’m famous white. Calabazas white. I love L.A. It’s the only place you can go skiing, to the beach and to the desert all in one day white.
Have you read The Sellout? Share your thoughts below!