Book Club: The Sellout

When I was home for a wedding last month, I visited my favorite local bookstore, Carmichael’s, a couple times. We don’t have an English-language bookstore in my city in Italy (and my reading level in Italian is roughly that of a ten-year-old), so I luxuriated in a store full of things I could potentially actually read. I’m going to need everyone to stop writing books for the next six to ten years so I can catch up; there’s so much amazing stuff and somehow there’s always more. 

The guy behind the desk recommended three books for me to take home, one of which was The Sellout by Paul Beatty. “You like Josh Ferris, right?” I do, yes. “And you were into Confederacy of Dunces?” Sure was. “Already read the new Ta-Nehisi Coates?” Twice. “Great, here.”

I devoured The Sellout on the plane home, though I don’t know if I would describe my appetite for it as voracious. As you and the rest of the English-speaking world likely already know, The Sellout was the first book by an American to win the Man Booker, which should have warned me. Remains of the Day, A Brief History of Seven Killings, God of Small Thingsand The Blind Assassin are some of my other favorite winners, and they all fall squarely into the category of “things I am glad I read and agree are for sure outstanding art but made me want to die the whole time.”

Photo of the author holding The Sellout, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s the premise, and let me know when you start squirming:

There’s this more-or-less unnamed narrator (Me). He’s black and lives in a fictional semi-agrarian, all-black area of Los Angeles he calls Dickens. As if the idea of someone farming in Los Angeles isn’t weird enough to call it right then and there, Me re-institutes segregation and, along the way, acquires a slave. Oh, and his unarmed dad (who, incidentally, performed racially charged psychological experiments on Me for the better part of two decades) gets gunned down by police in the street, but Me thinks this is pretty hilarious and just buries him in the backyard next to his prize watermelons. Eventually, our protagonist ends up on trial at the Supreme Court for…something. His attorney dresses like Shaft, and Me gets super high during the proceedings and blows smoke in Clarence Thomas’ face. It’s satire, right? Right? Let’s go with that.

And it’s unrelenting for 288 pages. It’s just a barrage of improbable characters and plot points designed to make the reader short of breath. Beatty’s prose gave me this asthma attack feeling for most of my eight-ish hours from Baltimore to Mannheim, because each time I thought, “okay, this is as far as you can reasonably stretch this,” he’d tease out another six miles, playing tragedy for laughs and waving a middle finger at my mental pleas for him to give me a second to catch my breath and reorient my sense of left and right and right and wrong. If you feel offended? Well, Paul Beatty was trying to offend you. The fact that I felt so outlandishly discomfited probably says more about me than anything else; overall this was equal parts watching a Quentin “Violence is a Laugh Riot” Tarantino film, overhearing a particularly troubling AM talk radio segment, and stumbling into a truck stop with an six-aisle blackface tchotchke section, but if that feeling was articulated by someone approximately one thousand times smarter than both the intended audiences for the aforementioned products and me.

I don’t know if this is a classic of the genre, or if I’ll feel compelled to revisit it later, but for now, The Sellout joins my litany of Man Booker novels that I feel enriched having read and recommend very highly, but reaffirms my general sense of dread and queasiness about the world at large. It’d be a great book for a book club looking for a challenging read that isn’t overwrought, or for someone wanting to know what the heir to George Orwell and Joseph Heller might be like.

Have you read The Sellout? What did you think?

Next week, I’ll be reading The Girls by Emma Cline. Join me!

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