The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

It would be remiss of me not to begin by congratulating Paul Beatty on winning the Booker Prize for The Sellout. So, congratulations. It’s also the very probably the last time I’ll mention it: I’ve had this scheduled for a long while now, and it would be equally remiss of me to let the prize colour my perceptions of the book.

Shall we get the inevitable comparisons out the way first? The Sellout is an outlandish satire very much in the vein of Swift. Its modest proposal, or rather, that of its protagonist, the equally outlandishly named Bonbon Me, is to raise the standard of living in his neighbourhood, Dickens, a bizarre agrarian enclave in the heart of urban LA, by bringing back segregation. Unfortunately for Bonbon and his best-laid plans, Dickens has a dearth of white people from whom the population can be segregated, and here his schemes come undone.

The Sellout promises to be a rambunctious burlesque, a satire that cuts to the heart of American racial politics. And to some degree it makes good on that promise. When The Sellout hits, it hits hard. It coruscates, it sizzles, it’s darkly hilarious. However hard parts of it might hit, though, its impact is limited to sizzly vignettes: they’re suspended in something far more tepid, far slower.

The Sellout

Part of this, admittedly, might be my poor grasp of American racial politics—as someone who has lived in English middle-class suburbia all my life, and openly admits to being whiter than skimmed milk, the nuances of Beatty’s satire might be wasted on me. But satire is also very hard to sustain; it’s not for nothing that the ur-satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels reads more like a collection of short stories.

The Sellout might be an uneven novel, but it is perhaps a necessary one; more necessary than ever. I’m writing this as the polls open in America, and Bonbon Me’s country decides whether to vote an openly racist demagogue with voracious support from the KKK into the White House, in the first election without the provisions of the Voting Rights Act for fifty years. Wounds that can hardly be called old have had their scabs broken and are suppurating once more. Perhaps what America needs is for someone to take a long, hard look at this discourse and turn it upside down. Perhaps we all need some outrageous satire.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout, Oneworld Publications (London: 2016)