We are truly in the age of morally gray and ambiguous novels. Whether it be A Brief History of Seven Killings finding the humanity and everything worth loving within Jamaican drug-running assassins, Let the Great World Spin’s asking whether or not a priest can act out his faith towards those who reject its tenants at all turns, or Fortune Smiles containing a story that attempts to establish empathy with a man that while helping the police track down child pornographers, struggles deeply with the subject itself, novels and stories being published to acclaim today are hellbent on deconstructing every off-hand notion of what is true and right in order so that they may complicate it and find, even in the worst aspects of humanity, the existential struggle that exists in all people. And yet, in these writings we find something deathly serious in the way the way they are approached. Humor has an occasion, yes, but in the above it is not commonly found, often existing in places where it is so dark it is difficult to laugh at, or so safe it functions as a mental break from the seriousness of the matter at hand.
The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s Man-Booker Prize winning novel from 2015, takes a different approach. While it still ruthlessly examines and deconstructs everything we know, it uses humor in a ruthless way that both allows a person a way out of the crushing depravity of what they feel they are reading, but also shoves them further into it, with every attentive reader’s laugh bringing a forced reflection on the topic at hand. The topic being what makes the book so difficult to accept in the first place: slavery and segregation. In contemporary times as we become more keenly aware of social and racial injustices and the copious amount of work we still have left to do in the fight for equality, Beatty’s brilliance comes out as satire, but whereas some satirical works blur the line so much that they run the danger of endorsing the very thing they set out to satire, The Sellout finds itself riding a perfect line of questioning and humor, never straying into the dangerous area of humor that becomes impossible to differentiate between endorsement and criticism.
Centering around a narrator who only gives his last name (“Me”), The Sellout‘s plot concerns itself Me’s reintroduction of slavery and segregation into Dickens, the LA suburb he was raised in. Yet, this is not his intention from the outset. Me begins the novel as an urban farmer raised by a father who was well-versed in both psychology and African-American Socio-Economic conditions. After his father’s death at the hands of the police, the local man his father was known for saving from multiple suicide attempts, Hominy Jenkins, again tries to hang himself. After Me saves him, Hominy feels in debt to Me as well as fed up with his own place in the world as a former African-American Child Star from the days in which racism was a common avenue for American television. As such, Hominy exists in a world that that is permanently separate from reality. Since his most successful and happy moments of life came directly due to the existence of racism, without socially acceptable racism existing both in policy and actuality, he is unable to function.
Behind all of Beatty’s satire is the idea that while segregation and slavery were both racist, in America they up institutionalized racism, which responding to with laws, while necessary, doesn’t end racism, but nonetheless allows people to operate as if they do not exist and live within a structurally racist society. Thus, the avenue that Beatty explores finds its brilliance it its exploration of this fact. The Sellout doesn’t set out to complicate and leave gray the morality of slavery and segregation, in fact the the main character often repeats the horrendousness of it whilst reflecting upon the nature of his father. What The Sellout does instead is complicate our existing structure through pretenses that most find absurd. The most disturbing thing about The Sellout does is not its offering up of a comic view of slavery and segregation; it is Beatty’s relentless pointing to our own society, which functions now as if ending slavery and segregation were simply placing a band-aid over a serious wound and then refusing to admit there is a deeper problem.
Recommended to: This is a great novel to read if you like to be challenged from a variety of standpoints. It requires a reading that is beyond face-level, shallow interpretation.
Avoid as if it is a speed run of Super Mario the Lost Levels: This novel is extremely difficult to read, offending everyone in the world at least once a page. Yet this is not without purpose, which redeems it. Nonetheless, if neither satire nor dark humor is your thing, you will struggle to find any redeemable qualities of the book.