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Paul Beatty, The Sellout (Man Booker Prize)

Book Review

Sunday 30 October 2016, by siawi3

Paul Beatty
The Sellout
(Man Booker Prize)


Updated: October 27, 2016 01:40 IST

Dickens in today’s America

Vaishna Roy

It’s appropriate that the Booker goes to a writer who puts American values so nakedly on the mat

Roughly at the halfway mark, Me, the protagonist of The Sellout, blows hashish smoke into his slave Hominy’s face, and as the stress leaves their bodies, he says the blackness too peeled from their hides, “the melanin fizzing and dissipating into nothingness like antacids dissolving in tap water.” Paul Beatty’s Booker winner this year is chock-full of lines like these, seemingly throwaway lines that ache with the weight of history.

In blackest of black America

Every now and then there comes a book like this, which makes your thumbs prick with prophecy. Halfway through this one, my thumbs were bleeding. The Sellout shocks you with its stark, ruthless and relentless satire, set in blackest of black America on the outskirts of whitest Los Angeles. Mr. Beatty is that fiendish stand-up comedian who drags you into his joke and makes you live it, uneasy, half-laughing and half-appalled.

Me’s father, a wild social psychologist whose lifetime work was to make his son realise how black and how doomed he was, is shot down by the cops because, well, “just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight.” Dickens is the black ghetto they live in, located not far from Foothill Freeway, where Rodney King’s life and “in a sense America and its haughty notions of fair play began their downward spiral.” Dickens is too ugly and poor to be allowed to survive, and in a biting passage on urban gentrification, the writer describes how the slum is quietly purged out of the map to ensure that it doesn’t lower property prices in its affluent neighbourhoods.

Me decides to restore Dickens, but also racial segregation. And slavery. And this is set, in fantastic irony, in Barack Obama’s America, roiled today by an election campaign defined by race, religion, gender and every other degree of divisiveness that can be dredged up. As you get deeper into the book, it spins faster and faster away from the centre and normalcy, from pious postures and politically correct responses and every fig leaf of righteous delusion that we share to tell ourselves that everything’s all right with the world. Mr. Beatty drags you into the heart of this black vortex, but he does so with a lyricism, tenderness and humour that keeps lighting up the edges.

Even so far away, our lives have resonated with the aftershocks of repeated police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. Not so long ago, 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel was assaulted by the police in Alabama for not responding in English. And closer home, we have had Africans targeted in Bengaluru and elsewhere by local hooligans. And Dalits get battered with the regularity almost of train schedules. The riff of racism plays out for us on a frighteningly intimate note. And Mr. Beatty is aware of this. In the book, when Me and Hominy work out how to bring back discrimination to Dickens, they toy with the caste system. “At the bottom,” says Hominy, “we’ll have the Untouchables… people who have the dirty jobs”.

‘Unmitigated blackness’, the term Mr. Beatty coins, becomes as real in this book as unmitigated brownness or unmitigated Dalitness is real on the streets for us. Mr. Beatty then takes this and stands it on its head and subverts every cultural reference, every constitutional assertion and affirmative action ever taken and shakes them out till they are empty of everything but their own stilted and hollow structures. And so, in a warped recasting of Rosa Parks’s stand in Alabama, Me gives Hominy a birthday present in the shape of a bus in Los Angeles that reintroduces segregated seating. And in an equal world where honey-toned women and coffee-dark men have finally been let into drawing rooms and luxury car commercials, Marpessa (Me’s scrappy girlfriend) asks why white people are never described by their skin tones: “Why aren’t there any yoghurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-stringed… white protagonists…?” But, as Mr. Beatty says with savage wit, white can always be whiter than white: “Bel Air white. Three first names white. Valet parking white. Laguna Beach volleyball white.”

The book bristles with a daunting range of swift, jab-and-hook cross-cultural references — from Barbra Streisand’s Jewishness to Madonna’s whiteness to Churchill and Godard, Colin Powell, Kafka, Darth Vader and the Lone Ranger — spanning high art and pop art with a playful ease that must have impressed the Booker jury. It mocks politics, cinema and racism, but also black activism, black assumptions and black preoccupations in a dizzying and breathless two-step that often leaves you grasping at nothingness — but, as Mr. Beatty says, “sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living”.

The writer’s Dickens, and by extension his America, is a dystopia, disarmingly lit up by neon fantasies and inspiring slogans and the pediment in the U.S. Supreme Court that says Equal Justice Under Law, but where, he says with breathtaking acerbity, the rights of “African-Americans were neither God-given nor constitutional, but immaterial”.

In a controversial year

Mr. Beatty has thumbed his nose at this entropic world with an uproarious, irreverent and riotous romp of a book — he has triumphantly “whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” And in a controversial year, when the Literature Nobel went to a songwriter, it seems particularly appropriate that the Booker has been awarded for the first time to an American writer who puts America and American values so nakedly on the mat. Looking back, we are likely to be startled that both in its political choices and in its Booker winner, the U.S. was handed such starkly candid mirrors this year.



October 26, 2016 09:25 IST

U.S. author Paul Beatty wins Man Booker Prize


The novel is a “shocking and unexpectedly funny” portrayal of his native Los Angeles, say the jury.

Paul Beatty has became the first US author to win the Man Booker Prize for his novel “The Sellout”, which the novelist said should not be read as a “mono-directional” take on race. The jury behind the world’s most prestigious English-language literary award said the novel was a “shocking and unexpectedly funny” portrayal of Beatty’s native Los Angeles, using satire to explore racial equality in a fictional neighbourhood.

Beatty said readers should think of the novel as a work of fiction rather than solely focusing on race. “I tend to bristle when people say it’s black, it’s angry, it’s about race,” he told journalists after picking up the award at a glitzy black-tie ceremony in London’s historic Guildhall building on Tuesday.

“Hopefully it’s not so mono-directional. These labels are more malleable than we like to think about them,” the 54-year-old writer said. Beatty appeared overwhelmed when he took to the stage to receive the award from Prince Charles’s wife Camilla. “I can’t tell you guys how long a journey this has been for me,” he said.

The jury said that through his “equally affectionate and bitterly ironic portrait of the city and its inhabitants, Paul Beatty dodges inherited views of race relations, solutions or assumptions”. The author “presents through his beguilingly honest and well-intentioned hero an innocent’s view of his corrupt world”, the jurors added, bringing “the unendurable status quo of present day US race relations to an absurdist conclusion”.

’Institutional racism’

The winner of the Man Booker receives £52,500, ($64,100, 59,000 euros), although the real prize is seen as the huge sales prompted the moment judges announce their decision. The Man Booker was launched in 1969 and has awarded writers including Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch and Salman Rushdie. It was only opened to non-Commonwealth authors from 2013 — a decision that was highly controversial in Britain. No US author had won it until now, despite concerns that writers from the United States would dominate the prize. Jury chair Amanda Foreman said nationality had nothing to do with the choice.

“It did not weigh on the jury that Paul was American,” said Foreman, who herself is American and based in New York. “It shows that there is a global reach to this prize,” she added. “The Sellout” is Beatty’s fourth novel and earlier this year won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. It is narrated by Bonbon, an African-American resident of the run-down town of Dickens in Los Angeles county, which has been removed from the map to save California from embarrassment. Bonbon is on trial for attempting to reinstitute slavery and segregation in the local high school as a means of bringing about civic order. The judges said that “the framework of institutional racism and the unjust shooting of Bonbon’s father at the hands of police are particularly topical”.

’Difficult subjects’

Five other authors were nominated for the prize in a shortlist celebrated for taking risks and tackling tough subjects. Foreman said the judges were “excited by the willingness of so many authors to take risks with language and form”. “The final six reflect the centrality of the novel in modern culture — in its ability to champion the unconventional, to explore the unfamiliar, and to tackle difficult subjects.” The favourite had been Canadian Madeleine Thien with her third novel, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”, a weighty 480-page book that portrays a young woman recounting her family’s past in revolutionary China. British author Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” had also been tipped by bookmakers. His second novel is set in 19th-century rural Scotland and tells the story of a young and poor tenant farmer who murders the village administrator and his family.

The book’s Glasgow-based publisher is run by just two people and is struggling to meet demand. Other novels shortlisted include “Hot Milk” by South African-born British author Deborah Levy, who depicts a torturous relationship between mother and daughter in a Spanish village. Canadian-British author David Szalay’s “All That Man Is” traverses different countries to follow the lives of nine men in a tale about contemporary Europe.

Judges called it “a post-Brexit novel for our time”. The final shortlisted book “Eileen”, the debut novel by American Ottessa Moshfegh, follows a disturbed young woman who cares for her alcoholic father and works in a youth prison.