This is another quite famous book that I only heard about and read because of the book club I am a part of. The member of the group that suggested reading and discussing it explained that ‘The Sellout’ caused a lot of controversy due to its themes. She explained that it is about a black man in front of Supreme Court accused of being a slave owner. With this in mind, I knew that Beatty’s Booker Prize winning novel would be challenging and thought-provoking, but I was excited to see how this premise was explored. Unfortunately, while there is indeed a lot of great value in this novel, and I am definitely happy that I read it, I cannot say that I enjoyed the experience.
The novel is set in the suburbs of L.A. named Dickens that was essentially imagined as a farming community close to the city. However, these suburbs are literally wiped off the map and after his father is killed by the police, the narrator sets off to reinstate Dickens and decides to do so by enforcing segregation on various levels, such as local shops, school and bus. The reader who did not know the crime that brought the narrator to Supreme Court might be caught off guard by its revelation. Even with me knowing why he has to defend himself, I thought the Prologue was quite strong and actually ended up reading half a book in one sitting. However, probably some half-way through the book I started to lose my interest as I felt like the novel lacked strong structure. I struggled to keep up with the timeline and the overall ideas and the only reason I kept going was because of the book club. The more I read, the more I realized that the biggest part of the book was just the rehashing of the main idea that was quite powerful.
Narrator is quite a fascinating character for me. He is unconventionally honest and brutal. His accounts of his isolated upbringing in which he was essentially used as a guinea pig for his father’s experiments on race sparked my interests and definitely provided good grounds for discussion about the morality and the effect parents have on their children. To be honest, reading all the different experiments that are abusive left the most effect on me, as I could not imagine having to go through that so young. There is a lot of room to discuss all the ways in which his father’s behavior and attitude towards him affected the narrator’s way of thinking and attitudes towards race. His father’s description is often exaggerated , but I did not mind that as much as with other characters as I felt like it served a higher purpose in the context of the novel. The same is true for Hominy, an old black man who internalized racism to the point in which he willingly becomes a slave to the narrator.
What I have seen praised when it comes to ‘The Sellout’ is the satire. I am a really big fan of satire and I think that it can be a very useful and successful tool to discuss some controversial topics that are present in the novel. The satire here lays in the very setting of the novel, showing the ridiculousness talking about ‘post racial’ America when the racial issues are still so prevalent. Throughout the novel, there are numerous instances reinforcing this idea and I believe that in this sense satirical approach in this novel is successful. In fact, satire as a genre is the most successful when it’s employed as a way to expose and subvert the harmful ideas that majority has. By putting the black man as the one enforcing and encouraging racial segregation, Beatty is able to criticize it more effectively.
In addition to satire, another element often praised is the humour. Even before reading it, I have read numerous reviews mentioning the type and intensity of humour that add to the narrative. Unfortunately, I did not see it. Lot of jokes are quite culturally bound or hidden in some obscure reference. If you are able to understand this, I am sure you would enjoy it more that I did, but I am afraid that a lot of them flew over my head. In fact, I often felt like it diminished the very important topic of racial issues that is at play here. For me, the only humour I understood and was able to follow in the satirical setting of the novel and the purposeful exxagaration. I did not find the book funny or comedic in any sense.
Finally, the biggest reason I cannot say I enjoyed reading this novel is the style and the structure. It starts off strong, with insightful observations about race and the position of black people in the United States at the moment. However, after a while, it becomes really hard to keep up with plethora of racial stereotypes characters, flashbacks and philosophical musing. It often took me couple of times to read the same long-winded sentence to understand what was being said. As somebody on goodreads said, after thirty pages, I think I have read everything this novel had to offer as it gets repetitive and stagnant. I found it hard to understand the passage of time and the actually events in the book seem unbalanced with the theoretical passages included. Without spoiling it too much though, I must say I was quite pleasantly surprised by the ending and I believe that it does wrap up the story nicely.
At the end, I can say that although I gave it 3/5 on Goodreads, I understand why ‘The Sellout’ received so many awards. It is a satirical and often contradictory, brutally honest account of a man with a mission, regardless of how regressive it really is. Although there were quite a lot of elements that I did not like, it is significant to modern literature as it opens up the door to a lot of discussions that we are often too afraid to lead. Often, it is the role and the task of art to give its consuments the space to express themselves and Beatty did that.
I would love to hear from you. Did you read ‘The Sellout’? What did you think? Comment section is NOT spoiler free, so you can freely discuss the novel there.