The Sellout by Paul Beatty
As an avid reader of literary fiction, I make it a habit to read the Man Booker Prize winning novel each year. I’m always curious to see what the committee selects, as well as their rationale for the prize. For two years in a row, a black male author has won the prize—last year’s winner, Marlon James, wrote a hefty tome about Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings. This year’s winner, American Paul Beatty, wrote a much shorter book that took me almost the same amount of time to read. [On a separate note: it really does feel like cheating to have the United States eligible for the Man Booker Prize, at least to me. We already have the National Book Award, plus a myriad of other prizes that non-American authors are *not* eligible for, so what gives? It’s not Beatty’s fault at all, but it bothers me]
The Sellout is about an unnamed narrator who lives in Dickens, California. His father is a psychologist who conducts a series of unorthodox experiments on our narrator and records the results. This continues until his father is killed by the police and our narrator discovers that Dickens has been wiped off the map. In order to put Dickens back on the map, he decides to resegregate it—he institutes separate schools and facilities, as well as painting boundaries for white, black, and Latinx citizens. At the same time, he tries to win back his ex-girlfriend and maintains the dignity of a former black child star by enslaving him (at the star’s request), which culminates in a case that threatens to reopen history.
This book is supposed to be satire, I think. There are some clever moments of alternate history that show some what-if scenarios, but there are many more points of confusing exposition or plot that left me scratching my head. I think this book is supposed to be appreciated more than enjoyed, but that never makes a book easier or more pleasurable to read, does it? I think I was supposed to find it brilliant and clever, but I felt lost a LOT. I don’t know what could be different about it, I just know that this took me a week to read, and it was hard to step into a reading groove when I did get a chance to pick it up.