Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

A dense, award-winning book that relentlessly satires cultural identity, politics, philosophy, pop culture, etc. Paul Beatty goes all-out in a rapid-fire funny and tragic riff; an improvised verbal flood of words on race - at times incomprehensible to this white reader, and other times fascinating. I say, white reader, because much of the slang and cultural references went "Whoosh," over my head. Not that this matters. There is plenty for everyone to eat. Can't say I loved it or hated it. I did admire it. It is a weird mix of comedy, tragedy, and existential absurdity that reflects the current breakdown of gender and racial roles in society and the waffling identity of people trying to figure out their meaning in the world whether black, Muslim, female, transgender, etc.  Behind the laughter is a slashing anger that addresses loss, failure, and flawed institutions on all levels. The serious side is masked by riffs and an absurd, subjective plot. This novel doesn't use familiar literary structures or conventions so if you looking for an alternative read, I recommend it.

The story begins with an African-American nicknamed, Bonbon, being charged by the U.S. Supreme Court for owning a slave and implementing segregation in the community. Bonbon's father was shot by the Los Angeles police and Bonbon received a settlement of two million dollars. He used the money to start a farm mainly growing watermelons and weed. Hominy, a depressed and retired actor who worked on films portrayed in racist scenes on the defunct TV series, The Little Rascals,  has lost his cultural identity and attempts suicide. Bonbon takes him on as his slave and Hominy no longer has an identity crisis. He knows his place in the world once again. 

Meanwhile, Bonbon's town of Dickens has disappeared; eaten whole by the LA suburbs and erased from the maps. Bonbon resurrects the town by instituting segregation. It reminds people of the past and how far (or not) they have come in the world from slavery. Bonbon asks repeatedly, "Who am I? And how can I be that person?" and "Who am I? And how can I become myself?" Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and sociologists  have been asking this question for a long time as it establishes a sense of identity. Karen Coates, in "Keywords for Children's Literature," explains how a modernist culture sees identification as a composite whole versus a postmodern culture that emphasizes not a continuous identity but one that continually changes. The characters represent this notion of identity in a vague and multilayered way with no direct answers. 

Beatty masks what side of the argument he stands for with humor. I found it difficult figuring out what his point was at times or if his point was to not have a point. In the last chapter, Bonbon is at a club listening to a black comedian who rips into a white couple sitting in the first row. Bonbon describes the white people as trying to understand the black comedy but obviously not getting it. When the comedian says, "'This shit ain't for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!'" Bonbon responds by wishing he'd stood up to the man and asking, "'So what exactly is our thing?" At first, I thought maybe the author was making a point that he doesn't want assimilation between races, but this didn't follow the themes Beatty points to throughout the story. Instead, I think it ties in with the theme of identity and Bonbons constant "Who am I?" question. The scene shows how the white couple is not aware of their actions nor are they sensitive to the culture they've stepped into in the club. They choose the center row where they are most visible and they laugh at all the wrong jokes at the wrong times. Beatty cynically seems to be implying that things really don't change, a recurring theme that has a steady beat from beginning to end.

The slim plot piles ridiculous situations upon even more ridiculous situations reminding me of my University of Minnesota class on the Theater of the Absurd. Bonbon's existential look at an individual's place and meaning in the world are humorously approached in absurd scenes that make the reader laugh but belie the tragic seriousness of many explosive issues. I'm not sure if Beatty means to shock the audience into action or just become more self-aware of their identity regardless of race and color, but either way that is the effect it had on me. 

The characters are often dealing with losses and failures in life where they seem to have a moment of clarity only for it to disappear in a poof of inaction or incapability to articulate the battle. Bonbon takes offense at guest-speaker, Jon McJone's, nonsense about an African child in slavery being better off having two parents as opposed to today's one parent home. Bonbon thinks to himself that McJones doesn't talk about how people were forced to marry each other during slavery times, how divorce wasn't an option, and how kids were sold off at the whim of the masters. When he tells McJones he's full of crap, Colin Powell says "Like you wouldn't rather be born here than in Africa." Bonbon takes offense at this nativist view that unfairly makes light of the suffering the original slaves went through; however, King Cuz stands up and does the fighting for him. Bonbon, nicknamed "The Sellout", just walks away in the middle of the argument. Oftentimes when Bonbon speaks up it falls on deaf ears. He appears to fail and takes drastic measures to make a point. 

While Bonbon is compared to a cupcake, he is not soft and his actions usually go in the opposite direction of how another would approach these issues. He is questioning the identity of black people by reinstating the past. When Hominy asks to be his slave, Bonbon recognizes that Hominy needs his past identity to find stability in himself. It also reminds people of the need for freedom of choice. Bonbon raises segregation on a bus which reminds people of all they fought for in the Civil Rights Movement to get to the present. When he segregates education it is the white people that want to get into the black school, not the other way around. Loss of freedoms. Loss of identity. Loss of respect for each other. Ultimately Bonbon's losses and failure climax at the Supreme Court where he is charged with violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. He does act in the end and he does make a point and finding himself and meaning in the world. 

Having read "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates and "The Sellout", I find that they both have this underlying anger toward institutionalized racism, except Beatty's book moves beyond the black issue and picks up what it means to be human. The question regarding the meaning of life gives the theme of identity a universalness that applies to more than just the black race; plus, Beatty's emphasis on self-awareness is one that suggests people can move forward. Coates does not offer any hope in his book. At least I felt more like an outsider looking at the back experience versus Beatty's look at racism in general. If you don't give a dickens to whether or not the characters are underdeveloped and the plot is ghostly, but want political incorrectness, laughter, and a mix of intellectual and vulgar street talk then give this a go. It is definitely an original.

5 Smileys

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