Everyone said The Sellout, winner of the Man Booker prize, was “satire”. Everyone except the author – and Spinoff reviewer Charlotte Graham.
“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man,” begins the 2016 Man Booker prize-winning novel The Sellout, “But I’ve never stolen anything.”
The urge to giggle awkwardly at this line is acknowledged further down the page when the book’s narrator describes a thickly padded chair as, “much like this country, [not] quite as comfortable as it looks.”
Paul Beatty wrote a book that could easily have been awful. An earnest, preachy book. At its heart, it claims that desegregation in America has not brought equality, only an added layer of comfortable pretense. Reviewers make sure that every time this book is spoken about, it is labeled satire. Ha ha! Definitely satire. Orwellian. Atwood-esque. Imagine if it wasn’t satire! No matter that Paul Beatty himself has said it’s not satire. Reviewers shoehorn the word “satire” into essays about The Sellout to show they understand the joke of a novel about race, with bonus points for the word “wry,” which suggests they’re also clever enough to be in on the joke. Nudge nudge.
I understand why they’re so adamant on the label. I might’ve been, too, if I’d read the book on another day. Beatty’s story comes from the point of view of a black farmer who winds up in the US Supreme Court for segregating his declining hometown of Dickens, California, and keeping his elderly friend as a slave. Reading that, an awkward giggle bubbles up in one’s throat, which seemingly can only be banished through use of the word “satire.”
The book’s also been described as “unconventional” or “challenging” a lot, which really depends on your definition. In the sense of structure, this book begins with the Supreme Court case the narrator faces for human rights abuses and flashes back through the whole story of how he brought back segregation and slavery, told in a fairly linear, chronological first-person monologue. Most Booker-winning novels are probably less conventional and more challenging. David Mitchell is harder work, as is Hilary Mantel. On the political front this year, Ali Smith’s beautiful, artistic Brexit novel, Autumn, required more mental effort to keep track of. But that’s not what reviewers mean by “unconventional” or “challenging” in this case. Kirkus Reviews (which calls the book Beatty’s “most penetratingly satirical novel yet”, showing that they really, really get it!) warns that “readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs… in the service of satire should take a pass.” Those readers would also have to avoid all social media and existing anywhere in America at the moment. Lol! Satire.
If this review has an edge of hysteria to it, it is my own fault. A week and a half ago, I thought I sort-of-understood what was happening in America. I’d been a good liberal and I’d read Ta-Nehisi Coates and I followed all the Black Lives Matter people on Twitter. I thought I understood the ways in which America had a huge race problem. I also thought the situation was terrible, but terrible and almost over, just like the polls said.
I received my review copy of The Sellout the night before the US presidential election, and because I believed every reviewer in the world that it was a PENETRATINGLY WRY SATIRE ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA, I thought it would be funny to read the novel on the same day as the election. I told the Spinoff Review of Books editor Steve Braunias my plan. He asked whether I planned to read it while watching the end of the world on CNN. “Haha,” said I. “Steve this seemed like a funny idea 24 hours ago,” I emailed later, after the polls closed and the results had started to mount up.
So, I was wrong. And watching a day of television about how much worse race relations were in America than I think almost anyone had realised, while reading a book about how much worse race relations were in America than anyone had realised, was pretty bloody upsetting. Paul Beatty’s writing is amazingly funny; stand-up comedian funny. Out of context I can’t repeat the jokes here because it will sound like I’m being a massive racist if I say them so you’ll have to get the book. But over the course of the day, as I flicked between the TV and Twitter and the TOTALLY SATIRICAL story of a man who re-segregates his town because the situation for black people can’t be any worse than it already is, I stopped laughing out loud at the one-liners and started grimacing to save time. If you have access to time travel, I highly recommend reading The Sellout on the day of the 2016 US election because it was an incredibly fucking interactive experience although also I had the taste of sick in the back of my throat the entire time, so make up your own mind, I guess.
I do wonder whether reviewers, by “challenging”, mean that the book covers a lot of ground. A lot. It’s like if you’ve ever heard a Noam Chomsky lecture and you’re 50 minutes in and you feel like you’ve been dumped outside your intellectual solar system and can’t remember where you started. Beatty covers economics, politics, international relations, education, the racism of Hollywood, the advertising industry, sociology, parenting. The relentless style of an entire book written as though in the personal essay style of a smarter and more self-aware Dave Chappelle is exhausting, but ultimately worth it. But you’ve got to read every word or there are bits you’re going to miss. The plot and characters are almost incidental; the narrator (unnamed) has a love affair side plot but who really cares? Certainly not Paul Beatty. He came to skewer every last fucking one of us and he will not go home until nothing remains un-skewered.
So I sat and read the story of a man who tries to get his town’s pride back through re-segregating it. Who grudgingly takes his elderly black friend as a slave because his friend so badly wants it, even though the old man won’t do any work and must be taken to a BDSM club for his weekly whippings because the narrator can’t bear to do it himself. Satire!
Then I flicked back to the election conversation on Twitter, which by this point was masturbating itself to sleep in a frenzy of hot takes. Voting had essentially split along racial lines. Lady Gaga was protesting on a sanitation truck outside Trump Tower. The Onion was posting its “special live election coverage” in a kind of ambivalent whisper, as though seeming to understand that at some point the ridiculousness of real life had overtaken it, left it in the dust, and that no one gave a shit about joke headlines anymore. Barack Obama told everyone the sun would come up in the morning but he sounded maybe like 15% sure.
I went back to the satirical novel, where the narrator was describing his feeling of emptiness “the day after the black dude was inaugurated.” “What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor?” he asks. Satire. Ha. I cried and went to bed.
I decided to sit on this review for a week until things calmed down, or at least until I could force myself round to the belief that The Sellout was a satirical novel, like everyone else seemed to have done. A week passed. Donald Trump continued to behave like a rancid Cheezel wearing a human costume. He nominated someone for Attorney General who thinks the only bad thing about the Ku Klux Klan is that they don’t mind weed. Then there was an earthquake. In New York, Mike Pence went to see the musical Hamilton, happy enough to be entertained by a singing, dancing troupe of gay, black people, just not to live in the same country as them without passing some laws against them existing or doing stuff.
The Sellout sat stolidly on my bedside table in a continued refusal to become a satirical novel.
Paul Beatty is right and all the reviewers are wrong. It’s not satire. But it is very bloody funny. That seems important to acknowledge in a time where minorities and The Politically Correct are being accused of ruining comedy, something they are alleged to have done at the same time as writing novels that might be too challenging for white people because the novels, and here’s Kirkus Reviews again, contain “excessive use of the N-word.” I read yet another piece in the Guardian recently where white satirists bemoaned that you weren’t allowed to be funny in the age of Donald Trump because of people taking more offence than ever before! These are satirists never willing to entertain the possibility that if no one’s laughing at your jokes anymore, the jokes might not be funny. On the other hand, this book is screamingly funny, but it has to put up with this kind of bullshit.
On YouTube Paul Beatty reads from his book to a BBC interviewer who looks like Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey and who is nodding a lot while also looking like he is trying not to swallow.
“Do we need a wider discussion about race in America?” Matthew Crawley intones, very seriously and without swallowing.
Paul Beatty shrugs and sort of sighs. “Yeah, sure. Why not,” he says.
I don’t get the sense that they’re having the same conversation. Here on The Spinoff, Brannavan Gnanalingam wrote a super smart piece explaining how this happens, which is about how white people get to write the books and review the books and that a single review of Paul Beatty does not a diverse books section make. I completely agreed with everything he said and then took my white arse back to reviewing Paul Beatty.
Look, fuck satire or safety pins or whatever gently gently approach we’re all pretending to do this week to avoid acknowledging how bad things are. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s fucking terrible. So if you want to have a destructively good time, in the same way that there’s probably a moment of exhilaration between jumping off a really tall building and hitting the ground, I recommend The Sellout. Paul Beatty is not pretending to have the answers, but he’s also not making fun of anyone pretending to have the answers and he’s not pretending to do an intellectual deconstruction of not having the answers. He’s just spraying the shit hose around so it gets on everyone and there is some joy to be had in that.
I started the book and the day of the US election thinking I understood what was going on and it turns out I didn’t. I have no doubt that I still don’t know. The best thing about this book is the Gallic shrug its author gives to any suggestion that anyone has any idea of the scale of what the fuck is going on. The worst thing I can say about this book is that in 2016, it is exactly the Booker Prize winner the planet deserved.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.