Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is a funny, clever, topical novel, and it’s easy to see why it won the Man Booker Prize (I say that as if I’m fully aware of the criteria when I’m not) and the hearts of critics. It’s so clever that I don’t think my tiny brain, the same one that enjoyed it, might not be able to explain what it’s about, although my brain knows very well that it is satirizing a reality that is completely worthy of a superb novelist’s satirizing. In this case, it’s racism in America by way of a black man bringing segregation back in the fictional, erased-off-the-map town of Dickens.
There are complaints about the supposedly obscure references in the novel, and there are indeed a handful of esoteric pop culture artifacts tossed about, but there are also a lot of highly recognizable ones. Making these references, though, lets the author drive his point across more effectively than if he were just telling the story of a poor black man who suffers slurs and discrimination in his place, in the bus on his way to work or wherever. And if a reference is obscure, it’s funny anyway mostly because of the way it’s such brilliant, funny writing.
Reading the novel is like being told jokes you’ve heard a very funny person tell that you don’t really get but laugh at anyway. There are bits about blacks-inspired software with a word processor that has font called Tumbuktu and Harlem Renaissance. Distressed black women complain about unequal treatment of angry women: “When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society… Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your weave!” It throws jabs at Mexicans, Indians, the Chinese. You don’t have to be there to get the joke is what I’m saying, I guess.
Also, no one is safe. Not Dave Eggers, not Hootie and the Blowfish, not the TV show Friends, not Madonna, not ESPN, not the authors of literary classics and the white men who chose them. It’s so clever that at certain points, I thought the author might make a meta-comment about the Caucasian book critics who are fascinated by the author’s undeniable genius, the same ones that appear on the book’s blurb pages. But nope, the author mercifully held back.
Perhaps it’s the Americans who would find this very, very funny because satire about the social reality that is racism will always be great material for comedy and they’re right in the middle of where the action is. But to Asians who might get only some of the more obvious pop culture references, the novel still comes off as hilarious because this is not the first time we find out about discrimination. It’s quite familiar to us, in fact. It also pokes fun at people who frequently use the word “plethora”.
The Sellout is a sharp and funny (it bears repeating) reminder that modern America can’t help but practice its old habits, and our minority-belonging couldn’t help but chuckle even if it’s in a satirical novel about racism in the USA, and more importantly because of this The Great Gatsby that you have to read the novel to understand the context of because I won’t explain it:
“Real talk. When I was young, dumb, and full of cum, my omnipresent, good to my mother, non-stereotypical African-American daddy dropped some knowledge on me that I been trippin’ off ever since.”
It features funny racism satire things featuring Latinos and Asians, too. The hilariousness in that is universal, and laughing with a novel is a reading experience I will always cherish.