Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (2015)

This is going to be a tough one to review.  I had never heard of Paul Beatty before hearing him as a guest on the WTF podcast.  That was how I first heard of The Sellout, though apparently it won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 (this was a pretty big deal as Beatty was the first American writer to win it, but George Saunders followed suit last year [Ed. Later I listened to a podcast that mentioned it was only opened up to Americans in 2014]).  An unfortunate result of winning such an award is the question on the minds of subsequent readers: did it deserve to win?  In the case of previous winners, Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) and Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie), I thought so.  Remains of the Day (2017 Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro) is on my list of future reads.

I can't think of any books off the top of my head that were published in 2015 that I thought were better, but I hesitate to add it to the Best Books list for reasons that will no doubt be difficult to articulate.  Elements of the novel are great.  The writing is lyrical and casually profound.  However, this is not so much a novel as a manifesto.  The story is quite incidental to the ideas expressed therein.  There is kind of a good story involved though, but it is not really fleshed out.  The narrator (Me) notices that his hometown, Dickens (an enclave in south central L.A.), has been removed from the map.  He attempts to redraw the boundaries and put the city back on the map.  He achieves his goal, but the novel is barely about that.  It's more about how he takes on Hominy, who is a former member of the Little Rascals, as his slave.  Hominy is a caricature out of a minstrel show.  In fact, many of the same themes are explored in Bamboozled.  This is a better book than that was a movie, but great performances by Damon Wayans and Michael Rapaport.  I digress.

The novel opens with Me v. the United States of America, 09-2606 before oral argument at the Supreme Court.  It is immediately apparent that we are not in the real world when notice of his case arrives in a letter from the Court proclaiming, "Congratulations, you may already be a winner!" He is also smoking a bowl in the courtroom waiting for his case to be called.  He is basically charged with violating the 13th amendment.  This is one of the larger framing narratives, but I don't think it is really about that.

I would describe this book as incredibly poetic.  At times, it goes off for a dazzling page or two, or for a particularly gut-punching paragraph.  I don't really think it's noteworthy for the plot.  It's more the language, the cultural reference points, the whole mood of the presentation, that make it special.  It also becomes incredibly wacky and hilarious (Foy Cheshire's The Pejorative Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit and other works).

I remembered this part bothering me though:

"And in ten years, through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, the people of color, like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg's Crash, and Dave Eggers's do-gooder condescension, I hadn't spoken a single word." (95)

I mean, this just bothers me because he specifies that it's the Cronenberg Crash and not the Paul Haggis one about race relations in L.A. which seems a lot more appropriate but maybe I need to re-watch that movie about crashing cars and achieving climax.  And I'm not sure whether he is referring to AHWOSG or What is the What or Eggers in general.  Maybe I'm just being nitpicky.  He's referring to ten years passing of him going to the meetings of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a group formerly spearheaded by his father before he meets his untimely end (this happens relatively early in the novel, so I don't think that's too much of a spoiler).  Foy Cheshire often speaks at the meetings.  These are usually great scenes.  There are vividly drawn, memorable characters, such as Foy, King Cuz, and Hominy (as outrageous as he seems).  This is one of the few narrative tropes that work.  However, I don't buy the climax.

Today, I typed out some notes to myself in an e-mail from my phone, over the course of about 30 minutes.  I am going to edit it and leave in the parts that deserve comment.

-Too many n-words.

Then again, this is kind of a "definitive" novel on racism, so may be justified.  

-Wins man Booker due to political bent. Not a good story.  Nothing feel good about it, nothing realistic...though it is super real.

This is hitting repeatedly on my theme of the storytelling element.  I don't mean that it's a bad story.  There is something feel good about it, it has a pretty happy ending.  

-Fantastic prose style though. Very talented writer with "controversial" ideas. Shock value important to book...moments of sensitivity are great, but the jarring juxtaposition detracts. Invisible Man sequel?

I don't know if shock value is important to the book, but sometimes the gags from Little Rascals episodes with Hominy feel like overkill.  I guess that is why it is labeled a satire.  I think this is the best phrase from my notes: jarring juxtaposition.  Sometimes these scenes are just so hardcore racist that when the novel pulls back and goes into one of its relatively rare moments of tenderness, it feels refreshing.  You can see I was being very critical in my notes.  Invisible Man sequel is interesting, because I never finished Invisible ManPerhaps I only made this comparison because of the nameless narrator but it feels like a spiritual forbear.

-Self evident truths and stereotypes, extremely self aware, self conscious. A lot to talk about. Good book club selection, not good for white people to discuss, no way to act like they know what they're talking about. 

This sort of speaks for itself, but I feel seriously awkward writing this review.  I've removed the comparison to Get Out.  That is something else entirely.  That is both a critical and commercial success.  The Sellout is a critical success, and arguably a commercial one, but not on the same level.  I would say that I enjoyed Get Out very much, but that I thought the story kind of ripped off Being John Malkovich.  I've also removed stuff about BLM, though I do think this could be a kind flagship novel for the movement.  Granted, you would want a novel that delves into the horror and tragedy of an unjustified killing, rather than the more farcical portrayal here.          

Little rascals stuff, apocryphal? Black history in film is often regrettable but book focuses overwhelmingly on negative, nothing about how society has progressed.

This was a weird element of it.  Like, Hominy is probably not based on an actual person, but there are a couple people he could be?  In any case, I don't think many people still watch The Little Rascals, though I could be completely wrong.  But it would be interesting to fact-check any of the re-tellings of episodes of the show and sight-gags from it.

Open mic/comedy connection and WTF, Beatty as stand up comic? Slam poetry like.  Confederacy of Dunces as predecessor along with IM? Baldwin...Coates.

This was basically a reference to the episode of WTF that introduced me to Beatty.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to re-listen to it, but I did listen to a couple other ones briefly that had interviews with Beatty.  I don't think he performed stand up comedy ever or necessarily at open mics except to read poetry.  I recently heard an episode with Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his book Between the World and Me has been something I've been meaning to pick up.  He talked a lot about James Baldwin.  I forget which writers Beatty referenced as influential but he seemed to have a pretty broad palate.  I mentioned Confederacy of Dunces because there is a lot in this novel that reminds me of that, in the way the climaxes occur.  And just in general the way they're both satires.  They're obviously about very different characters and very different themes, but the picaresque and absurd qualities to each seem related.  I definitely think The Sellout can be put in a similar category to Confederacy.  That is something that I didn't love as much as I thought I might, but would probably speak to me in a different way at my age and social position (lol).

Farming in LA? Race riot history. (Future reference: grade A-, best books are only A+) OJ, Obama, Condoleezza, Colin Powell, Cosby, Jazz (?), Gangs, black Chinese food.

Having a farm in L.A. isn't that weird except for the desert climate.  There are probably a couple references to the L.A. race riots, but I would imagine there to be a couple more, regarding Dickens actual situation in the city.  There is not the same discussion of Brentwood and OJ as in The Rise, The Fall and The Rise but it probably comes up once.  For future reference, only books considered an A+ will be named to the Best Books list.  This is probably an A-.  But see below.  

But also Kafka. Again jarring juxtaposition but craftsmanship undeniable. Ideas are muddled but seems to be about why society keeps black people in a box...and how it keeps all races in their own box (except white who are privileged tho they can't dance)

I would excerpt the reference to Letters to Milena (why not Letters to Felice?!) but I'm wary of this going on too long.  I hope nobody takes this last sentence too seriously.  

Recommended, glad I read, but not something I would say everyone has to read asap. Tide has shifted from BLM to metoo. What is the next social movement? Should focus on economy, new-occupy, COL too high, no way for us to survive. End discrimination/patriarchy/old guard powermongers, when do we hit end stage communism? Art is about bringing people together, deepening understanding, open up worldviews, teaching us to be kinder to each other. This book is both a success and failure, however, white people that read it will probably decrease net racism. Narrators identity is fragmented (hates himself in some ways), psychologist father experiments entertaining and silly but also make clearest point in novel about ingrained prejudice. Grew up in Winnetka, so white, so was HS, so was college [Ed. though both were diverse], only learned about AA in law school, always considered u of m to be backwards until understanding benefits of diversity (thinking from different angles on same project), society more "woke" (terrible word) but people too quick to judge and assume other viewpoints invalid (i.e. anyone that has nostalgia for past). The past is sordid and there is nothing truly pure or good or perfect about anything and it's naive for people to pretend that certain people are "good" or "bad" and we don't believe that people have the capacity to change. End result is society more egalitarian but when will we ever be able to say that the playing field has been leveled? The book does its own small part to make the world a better place and is not likely to be read by anyone that will take it the wrong way but it ends up being more divisive than necessary. Avoid pandering to white audience but book arguably would have been better with stronger aspect very interesting and segregation still rampant , see Chicago, so relevance is there and will likely still be there in 50 years. Integration is getting closer and hopefully will be realized. 50 years since MLK assassination, 2018 could be the year racist police practices are stopped. 2 times in my life i probably would have been arrested if not white--how do we ensure that people are treated fairly?

too many ideas in this review, which shows the value of the book.

Briefly, this social commentary may be unwanted.  It contains some personal history that is perhaps best not discussed in a review of this book, but some other time.  Basically talking here about where I grew up and the extent to which I've lived in "diverse" communities.  I don't think we're living in the same world as we did before, race and ethnicity are less the target of discrimination than social class and citizenship (given the current administration).  The community of Dickens is likely one that would be the target of discrimination (getting taken off the map is something that a lot of people would probably like to do for Englewood to transcend its reputation).  I don't really understand the whole prank the narrator pulls about a fancy "white" private school opening up in the area.  

Then I go into more vague stuff that is critical of the tone of the conversations surrounding popular culture. 


Yeah that was a pretty unhinged raw feeling there.  How about a passage from the book:

"Godard approached filmmaking as criticism, the same way Marpessa approached bus driving, but in any case, I thought Laura Jane had a point.  Whatever Jewish people supposedly look like, from Barbra Streisand to the nominally Jewish-ish Whoopie Goldberg, you never see people in commercials that look 'Jewish,' just as you never see black people that come off as 'urban' and hence 'scary,' or handsome Asian men, or dark-skinned Latinos.  I'm sure those groups spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on shit they don't need.  And, of course, in the idyllic world of television advertisement, homosexuals are mythical beings, but you see more ads featuring unicorns and leprechauns than you do gay men and women.  And maybe nonthreatening African-American actors are overrepresented on television.  Their master's degrees from the Yale School of Drama and Shakespearean training having gone to waste, as they stand around barbecue pits delivering lines like 'Prithee, homeboy.  Forsooth, thou knowest that Budweiser is the King of Beers.  Uneasy lies the frothy head that wears the crown.'  But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn't Jewish people, homosexuals, or urban Negroes, it's traffic." (139)

Boom.  Let me revise my grade from A- to A for this novel.  It's on the cusp of Best Books and I think it deserves to have won the Booker Prize (or at least to be nominated) even though I still feel the tone of the novel is kind of weird and is not really about the plot but more the passages like the above.  It's an incredible book and I recommend it with the caveat that it is likely to be a bumpy ride for most.

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