Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A Loose Cannonball

I just finished reading Paul Beatty's novel The Sellout. It is the Man Booker prize winner of 2016. The Sellout is a biting satire about post racial US society, the one with a Black person as it's President. It was a tough read for me as it took almost double the time that I usually take for a book of its length. I had to re-read many parts again to find out if I had missed something and there were many points that were clear only while re-reading.

The protagonist of The Sellout is a black man whose first name is never mentioned and his surname is just Me. He is summoned to the Supreme Court to deliberate a case of apartheid. It seems the guy was reinstating segregation and owning slaves in his home town, Dickens in Los Angeles.

This guy is the son of a psychologist, a single black father, who used his son as a Guinea pig for his psychological experiments. He was counting on his memoirs to take them out of poverty. But one fine day police 'accidentally' shoots him. The son continues his father's part time career of a Nigger- whisperer - rescuing suicidal black people.

When he realised that his home town is no more in the American maps, totally wiped off, he comes upon the idea of reinstating segregation as a means of retrieving it, much to the horror of his father's friend and later rival, Foy. An aged black actor, Hominy forces Me to take him as a slave. What follows are the attempts by the duo to reintroduce segregation and reclaim Dickens.

The book consists of a torrent of wise cracks and jokes about post racial US society. As a novel, it doesn't have a strong structure or plot. The whole book gives you a feeling of watching a very long stand-up act about racism. Several of the jokes and observations are ingenious. The author deliberately avoids any meaningful characterisation and keeps them all two dimensional caricatures. Instead of weakening the novel, it makes you not to care for them and concentrate on the rants of the protagonist, which is actually the strong point of the book.

I feel the intention of the book is to criticise the attitude of modern society to avoid discussing of racial difference altogether. The author tries to put forward a view that it is better to go back to the old ways of segregation if there is no atmosphere to openly discuss and agree on racial differences. It is more difficult for the minor ethnicities to live in a society that obliterate it's identity and makes it conform, rather than giving it space to develop its culture. In the novel we can see that segregation leads to better performance of students and general uplifting of the quality of living.

The Sellout is a highly contextual novel. It is specific in its historical, political and social contexts. To appreciate it fully, one has to physically experience these. There are many elements that are universal, and easy for people without the background to enjoy, but I feel it will be a different reading experience for people who are aligned to any of the sides portrayed in the novel.

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