Paul Beatty is a hugely significant comic writer: one of only a few contemporary novelists whose work is consistently satirical. His most recent novel, The Sellout, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2016, shares DNA with other irreverent, iconoclastic masterpieces like Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five. The novel traces the tribulations of his protagonist, Me (nickname Bonbon), as he tries to both reinstate and resegregate his hometown, Dickens, a poverty stricken, largely Black enclave in LA. The resegregation idea is triggered by Bonbon’s friend Hominy, the aging star of an early Hollywood show, who, habituated to ‘the domineering white presence’ (208) craves the overt white supremacy of the old days and insists upon becoming Bonbon’s slave. The satirical conceit of resegregation is obviously an exaggerated gesture, as is Hominy’s desire for enslavement, but both devices, while extreme, are arrived at through logical means, and serve as a way of examining the effects of white supremacy and the tendency for the recognition of racism to become blunted over time.
The iconoclasm of the novel is perhaps most marked in Beatty’s mockery of an African American intelligentsia whose demand for respectability and decorum includes an insistence upon a sanitised version of the history of racist representations. As Bonbon puts it, these paternalistic figures ‘present our case to the world with a set of instructions that the jury will disregard centuries of ridicule and stereotype and pretend the woebegone n—–s in front of you are starting from scratch.’ (98) One of the overt projects of the book is to work against this denial and reassert the history of ridicule and stereotype both in order to better explain that ‘woebegone’ nature and then to examine the repercussions of that history: the despair, the poverty, the internalised self-hatred. The demand for decorum also imposes expressive restrictions, with a dominant literary style that privileges what Beatty, in his anthology of African American humour, hokum, calls a ‘moral, corporeal and prosaic’ approach, which originates, in part, ‘out of a tradition of abolitionist “And ain’t I an intellect?” activism aimed, then as now at whites’ (11). In hokum, Beatty traces an alternative lineage, a Black comic tradition which offers a counter to the insistence upon sobriety, and avoids the doom-laden didacticism of an approach like that of Maya Angelou, whose work Beatty finds both ‘maudlin’ and oppressive (7). The alternative tradition captures ‘the black bon mot, the snap, the bag, the whimsy upon which “fuck you” and freedom sail’ (10).
The challenge Beatty sets himself in The Sellout is an honest accounting of Black history and experience rendered in a way that, in its irreverence, is true to the vernacular tradition he demonstrates in hokum. And while the approach may be comic, the suffering he delineates remains clear. In a passage when Bonbon is reminiscing about his father, the ‘n—-r-whisperer’ coaxing locals back from the brink of suicide, for example, his descriptions capture the anguish of Friday nights after payday when it all gets too much: the ‘teeming hordes of bipolar poor, who having spent it all in one place, and grown tired and unsated from the night’s notoriously shitty prime-time television lineup, would unwedge themselves from between the couch-bound obese family members and the boxes of unsold Avon beauty products … then having canceled the next day’s appointment with their mental health care professional, the chatterbox cosmetologist, who after years doing heads, still knows only one hairstyle – fried, dyed, and laid to the side – they’d chose that Friday to commit suicide, murder, or both’ (59).
It’s funny but also not. The rhythms and the pacing are comic, as is the observational humour, which has an unabashedly insider quality with the feel of stand-up, but the picture of despair is far from funny. And later, Bonbon is in demand due to the growing success of the segregation, as the overt racism makes the community newly respectful towards one another, forcing them to realise ‘how far we’ve come and, more important, how far we have to go’ (163). He’s in discussion with a local kids’ sports organisation and asks if they have any money:
“We just got a $100,000 grant from Wish Upon a Star”
“I thought they only did things for dying kids?”
It’s structured like a joke: with a punchline that reveals the children’s prospects with great economy.
These instances demonstrate the freedom of Beatty’s approach: the unvarnished, forthright statement about life expectancy, the observational material which defiantly plunders the privacy of black life. Even the running gag throughout the novel about the characters greedily eating the fruit that Bonbon grows on his farm, is an insistence upon the freedom to reclaim the racist trope about watermelons (and thus return the fruit to its original symbol as the means to community and self-sufficiency). The politics of respectability require that such matters be approached with reverence and discretion, but Beatty, recognising the degree to which such pieties are defined in opposition (to racist stereotypes, to the white presence), wishes to forge a new path that is genuinely self-created.
In the novel, Bonbon articulates this pursuit of freedom in his description of the evolution of Black identity, from the Neophyte Negro ‘afraid of his own blackness’ (exemplars include Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice), to Stage 4, ‘Unmitigated Blackness’ which ‘is simply not giving a fuck’ (Richard Pryor, David Hammons, Chester Himes) (277). In a sly poke at his own style, Beatty writes: ‘Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction’, and, we might add, riffs passing for plot. In interview, Beatty observes that ‘plot is very subjective. If a book’s about something you care about it, it doesn’t matter what tangents it goes on; as a reader you’re tied into it in a way that feels like plot, that feels like structure’. If, however, ‘the book is about things that are really, really tangential to how you read, or the things that are in your world’ then the plot may not be apparent (Paris Review). His riffs might then also be seen as a formal response to conventional or ‘prosaic’ (11) demands for legibility or conformity, demands that are perhaps largely shaped by the expectations of a white readership.
It’s interesting, however, that a growing unease about comedy is noticeable in his responses to the commentary on the novel. While he initially freely acknowledges the satirical impulse in his work, later, Beatty speaks mistrustfully of the implications of the term: the way it seems to limit a work to a particular time period and how it suggests exaggeration rather than commentary (which risks becoming mere entertainment rather than anything deeper) – both of which can allow for the work to be dismissed. We need only think of the legion of satirical news programmes to understand what he’s worried about – in this context, satire is eminently disposable. He’s also spoken about his discomfort at being called a comic writer, suggesting that the focus upon humour allows readers and commentators to ignore the sadness and the anger that his work attends to. Perhaps the comedy does risk obscuring the tragedy, and perhaps the general air of comic resilience risks disguising the pain. For me personally (and my whiteness does play a part), it took a second read to really appreciate what Beatty was doing. But maybe the need for a second read is further proof of his resistance to legibility or conformity, and another example of Unmitigated Blackness.
Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Beatty, Paul. Introduction, hokum, an anthology of African-American humor, edited by Paul Beatty. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2006.
Jackson, Chris, ‘Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty’, Paris Review, 7 May 2015 https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/05/07/our-thing-an-interview-with-paul-beatty
© Emma Sullivan 2021.