The Sellout, Satire At Its Finest

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Book Reviews

In his landmark paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel suggested that an organism is conscious when there is something that it is like to be that organism. It’s a beautiful definition, I think, and one that can be expanded to all sorts of questions of identity. What is it like to be American? To be a farmer? To be an art critic? To be a woman? To be Latino?

Is it possible that we partake of many forms of consciousness simultaneously? I think so, and in Paul Beatty’s delicious, raucous, and profound novel on racism in America, The Sellout, Beatty describes in laugh-out-loud satire and rollicking detail what it is like to be black, only to undermine his own exploration with the discovery that blackness is unintelligible lest it be understood in the context of what it is like to be human.

I’ve read a number of great books in the last few years, but none that I would say were better than this one, and few that I would say were as good. Great art has a sort of recursive genius, a multi-layered exposition that cannot be planned or forced, but arises seemingly of its own volition and I daresay surprises even the artist at times. Individual lines echo major themes. Sequences illumine facets of the whole, and a spirit emerges from the work itself that speaks at every point, yet wriggles out of sight whenever we try to grasp hold of it. This book has that quality in self-referential spades.

We first catch sight of the book’s slippery theme in the Prologue, when the narrator—who is on trial at the district court for reinstituting segregation and slavery in his hometown, as part of an effort to restore the community’s lost identity and literal place on the map—asks why his only plea options are guilty or innocent. “Why couldn’t I be ‘neither’, or ‘both’?” he asks. Then he says, “Your Honor, I plead human.” His lawyer instantly intervenes to clarify an innocent plea, then jokingly requests a change of venue, with Salem, Massachusetts and Nuremburg, Germany being the obvious choices.

The narrator’s father is F.K. Me, a social scientist “of some renown” who conducted experiments on the narrator throughout his childhood. In a reprisal of research conducted by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark on color consciousness in black children, Me presents his son with two dollscapes—one of Ken and Malibu Barbie chilling by the Dreamscape pool, and a second of famous black civil rights leaders being chased through a swamp by plastic German shepherds. Harriet Tubman is a 36-24-36 (bust-waist-hips) Barbie painted black, and the North Star is a Christmas ornament. When the narrator says, “I’m down with Ken and Barbie,” (because they have better accessories), his father yells, “What? Why?” And the research program is terminated. The narrator is sent out to work in the fields.

Dr. Me wears a number of hats, one of which is the local “nigger whisperer.” The narrator witnesses his father’s therapeutic talents on full display when a local gangster takes to the bed of his truck with a nickel-plated .38 and begins reciting poetry from his notebook in iambic pentameter, giving birth to the “crack rock era.” Dr. Me intervenes so the SWAT team doesn’t have to, and when asked by his son what he said to calm the drug dealer down, he replies, “I said, ‘Brother, you have to ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?’ “

These same two questions bookend the novel, and are asked again by the narrator, of himself, near the novel’s conclusion when he is reflecting on all that has transpired. Despite the many efforts he has made to restore dignity—albeit an obscene variety of it perhaps—to the community of his youth, he still hasn’t been able to answer the most basic questions about himself. While the fact that he is black permeates the entire course of his life, it is not a fact that affords him any genuine self-knowledge. At one point the narrator says, “Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it.”

This is the paradox that Beatty reveals so masterfully. Blackness isn’t an answer in and of itself, but nor is it anything but relevant to the narrator’s experience of being human. Through prose that cuts and bites and rips with humor—several times I laughed out loud in an otherwise empty room—Beatty grapples head-on with the very real tragedy of racism. He left me with the realization that there is, in fact, something it is like to be black in America, something encoded in the world and its history which we cannot simply strike down with a wand, but also it is a thing which defies absolutes. Its boundaries are diffuse, and whatever it is, we’re all involved in it somehow, whether inside or out.

When we look closely at it, as closely as we can, we find that the center of blackness, as of whiteness, and of every other –ness we would discern, is our tragic inability as humans to hold difference and sameness together. This failure is the essential human handicap. We’ve failed to recognize that both are part of being human, and that each is necessary to the other—that we, in all of our colors and shapes and sizes, can only truly possess our humanity when our uniqueness and our commonality are respected as treasures equally worth preserving. It is this paradox, surfacing in passage after passage to peek at us through Beatty’s delicious harangue of racism in America, that gives this novel life.

13 Comments

  1. This book looks really good. When we don’t see the materialist, reductionistic viewpoint and no longer try to objectify, how does consciousness accept its own subjectivity? Many of the themes you brought forward from the book seem pertinent to society as it is, and as it is becoming.

    Holding contradictory experiences, interpreting in constrasting ways simultaneously – such as sameness and differentiation. The fact that you measure this book in the way you do to the others that you’ve recently read…how beautifully this book exists in your library of literature, as a part of a greater whole, subjective and interpersonal, collective experience.
    Yes. I enjoy satire, too.
    You wrote beautifully here. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Ka! This book was, for me, bristling with consciousness from start to finish. I like what you said about these themes being relevant to society as it is becoming, and I think that’s true. Learning to accept our unique vantages, even as we acknowledge that deeply we are the same, is a profound understanding.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my writing about writing… Haha! It was fun and I’d wanted for a long time to write about this book. Thanks for reading and sharing here, as always.

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Michael!
    Once again you amaze me with your book review skills and I hope the author gets to read what you have written…because it is beautiful. You made me smile about a subject that has little laughter and has caused so much pain throughout history. I can tell that this novel would do the same and that is part of your expertise, I think; you convey the “feel” of the book as well as how the book made YOU feel.

    I hope you are we’ll, my friend.
    💜

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Lorrie! I’m grateful for your appreciation of my book review skills… I love to write about writing, and when works of art touch us it is such an interesting phenomenon. It’s about where we meet, how we form a relationship between our own lives to what the artist expresses.

      I’m good. Been a very busy few weeks, with multiple deadlines and all sorts of goings-on at the homefront. I hope you will excuse my delay. Always a joy to me to see you here, and spend a moment together.

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, Michael 😁 Happy to see you, too. Sending good thoughts and positive energy to you for the “goings-on” in your life. We all have them…yes?
        Hope you have a beautiful weekend 💜

        Liked by 2 people

  3. “We’ve failed to recognize that both are part of being human,..”

    This reminded me of Melanie Klein’s Paranoid-Schizoid positon. Altough, not exactly the same as what you are saying it is the inability of infants and sometimes adults to integrate objects into wholeness. Inorder to protect against percieved badness of objects (objects generally being people) they are split into good and bad parts. As such the good part is kept safe and the badness being projected outwards is felt as threatening making us paranoid of it. What you are descrbing seems a mirror to this effect at a group level.
    The precieved badness and goodness is something to think about as it is perhaps different for infants versus groups of people.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Fizan,

      I’m not familiar with that theory, and I tried to read a little but I couldn’t quite follow it all. But I think maybe I got a little bit of it. Our projection of goodness and badness is a pretty interesting human phenomenon, at every level of our development I’d say! What I read reminded me of how dogs form good-bad impressions based on silhouettes. I think I read that once. So if a person with a hat on treats a dog poorly, then that dog has a real difficulty with anyone who wears a hat. It sounds like kind of the same thing, doesn’t it? The dog’s master without a hat is looked upon kindly, but with the hat on is treated as a threat. We see threats far too often I’d say, and then we make them real. Kind of a vicious cycle…

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your insights.

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • The root of it (in infants) is the in-ability to deal with ambiguity and conflict. The reason for the slpitting of whole objects into good and bad is not to get rid of the badness but to protect the goodness in those objects.

        When they are able to integrate the two aspects into wholeness they mature into the depressive position. Although the badness didn’t destroy the goodness (which was the original fear) it contaminated it and hence the good object is lost. But the paranoia from the bad object is also lost.

        The depressive positon is the more mature and real way to see the world. But there is always a tendency to revert to the original position. The original position gives more clarity and security i.e. there is real goodness (and people sometimes need that). But also more paranoia i.e. there is real evil. It comes down to ego strength and the ability to tolerate ambiguity and conflict.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. An intriguing review! I’ve often thought about how there are many (infinite?) colors between black and white and wonder how that would fit into the recognition of our uniqueness and our commonality as treasures equally worth preserving (my favorite part of this post). Imagining a bridge of many colors.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi JoAnna,

      I like your bridge of many colors. I’ve had similar thoughts. I think it comes up in all sorts of ways, like when Native American tribes have to determine how many great grandparents must be Native American for you yourself to be one… It seems our efforts to make strict categories always break down, and we are left with continuums and spectrums without any real edges…

      With Love
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, David!

      Wishing you well, too. We’re having a glorious day here in Maine. The heat wave broke last night, and a cool front has pressed through. There is a light breeze, and a sense of connection to places far and wide… 🙂

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

      • happy to hear of the fair weather up there, Michael! warm & dry here in CA; smoke from nearby fires. makes me happy knowing you are there offering your wisdom & kindness to the world 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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