The Man Booker Prize 2016: Here are five reasons why The Sellout should win

Paul Beatty's The Sellout, which is a top contender for the Man Booker Prize tells us what it is like to be a black man in post-racial, post-Obama America.

Gouri Chatterjee October 24, 2016 13:00:58 IST
The Man Booker Prize 2016: Here are five reasons why The Sellout should win

One thing is sure — there need be no stunned faces when the Booker winner is announced on the 25th. It’ll be one of the six books shortlisted by the Man Booker judges in September. Which makes betting that much easier and, if the bookies are to be believed, British writer Deborah Levy is well ahead with her Hot Milk.

But then Bob Dylan rated 50:1 just before the Nobel shocker. So my money's on yet another American and not just because it seems to be Yankee season all round, from the great to the middling to the ugly. Though few books will help you understand today’s America better than The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

Here are five reasons why this 304-page novel should, and could, win the much coveted Man Booker prize this year.

The Man Booker Prize 2016 Here are five reasons why The Sellout should win

Image courtesy: Creative Commons

1. "Being black isn’t method acting. Lee Strasberg could teach you how to be a tree, but he couldn’t teach you how to be a nigger" (Hominy Jenkins, The Sellout's catalyst)

This is what the book is all about – what it means to be a "nigger" in "post-racial", post-Obama America. A gut-wrenching account of how racism permeates every layer of American society and how it has warped the lives and minds of its blacks.

To Paul Beatty (53), a black American himself, racism is a cloying, all-pervading reality from which there is no escape. As the narrator’s Proust-reading bus-driver girlfriend puts it, “Remember those photos of the black president and his family walking across the White House lawn arm-in-arm. Within those fucking frames at that instant, and in only that instant, there’s no fucking racism.”

Maybe. After all, racism in the US is said to have worsened since the "black boy" moved into the White House. Triggering the sharp increase in police killings of black men in recent times across the country and providing a strong impetus to white male losers mutating into Donald Trump’s footsoldiers.

Beatty began writing this book soon after Barak Obama took oath and took seven years to finish this deeply disconcerting, seemingly unhinged novel on a topic that is still the curse of America and looks likely to remain so irrespective of who lays claim to the Oval Office on 9 November.

But there's nothing predictable about how Beatty goes about his business. Imagine Dalits in India demanding the reinstatement of caste hierarchy in all its unbending rigidity and the reintroduction of labels such as “Untouchables” to describe their place in society. Unthinkable, right?

Welcome to Dickens, "an agrarians ghetto" on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where 'The Sellout', the name given to the eponymous novel’s protagonist by one of the dramatis personae, does the outrageous: brings back slavery as well as segregation in public buses and schools and coffee shops — seats for whites only, black schools for blacks only, and so on (leading five "pearly white" students to demand admission into the all-black school which has shown a distinct improvement in standards since the re-segregation).

This is only part of the roller coaster ride Beatty takes one on, turning every racial stereotype on its head,revealing the anger and the self-loathing that mainstream (read white) America’s efforts at racial equality generates in “people of colour,” making nonsense of any claim that there is anything called a “post-racial” world.

Hominy Jenkins is the slave in question, an ageing actor who forces The Sellout to take him on as his slave, calls him “Massa” and uses the manumission papers to set him free from bondage as toilet paper.

“You new niggers got black presidents and golfers,” but “true freedom is having the right to be a slave” declares Hominy. At one point he even puts up a placard that reads: “For sale — pre-owned Negro slave -- only beaten on Thursdays — Good conversation piece.”

If I am not giving you the story in a nutshell that is because it’s not that sort of a story. The plot is clearly absurd, but the reality makes no sense either. Beatty is trying shock tactics to force readers to take a cold, hard look at so-called "identity issues".

Rewriting, in the process, the popular narrative in which good triumphs over evil and the emancipated move on. Because,"history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It's memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you."

2. "Every black male secretly thinks he can do one of three things better than anyone else in the word: play basketball, rap, or tell jokes" (The Sellout or Bonbon to his girlfriend or Maasa to his slave — we never really get to know his name though his surname is Me)

Beatty, an acknowledged humorist, can laugh at himself too. Peppered with four-letter/ politically incorrect words and characters that can be depended on to never run true to character, his dizzyingly irreverent narrative is not just a searing commentary on America’s lip service to progress but a savage satire that spoofs social reality beyond belief.

It’s amazing that something that deals with such dark and dismal subjects as slavery, police violence, gangs, racial discrimination, economic inequality could lend itself to anything funny but The Sellout has a joke-per-line ratio that any stand-up comedian would kill for. Not laugh out loud funny though, but humour that makes the brutal truths bearable, even enjoyable, reading. Because, finally, it’s all so heart-breakingly sad.

Beatty’s lacerating comic riffs range from calling "people too poor to afford cable and too stupid to know they aren’t missing anything" the Wretched of the Earth, a clever play on the Sixties bible by Franz Fanon, to describing Washington D.C. as a city which is "a Freudian slip of the tongue, a concrete hard-on for America’s deeds and misdeeds."

The most innocent send-up is the recreation of the American classic,Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by replacing "the repugnant 'N-word'" with "warrior" and "slave" with "dark-skinned volunteer" and retitling it as "The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit." (There’s more, including "Measured Expectations" in place of you know what.)

But then, Beatty is not only a novelist and a poet. He is also the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humour with a watermelon slice on its cover.

3. "Is it my fault that the only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be?"
(Me / The Sellout/ Bonbon/ Massa)

For Beatty there are no taboos, no holy cows. His rapier-sharp wit challenges pieties from all sides, dishes out shiploads of offence most democratically. No one is spared his scatter-gun fire, not even black icons.

For instance: Martin Luther King Jr had no sense of humour; if "Honest Abe" came to life today, "The Great Emancipator, you can’t stop him, you can only hope to entertain"; and "Maybe Rosa Parks, after the arrest, after the endless church rallies, and all the press, had to cry racism, because what was she going to say: 'I refused to move because the man asked me what I was reading?' Negroes would have lynched her."

Yes, this book could leave you laughing and crying at the same time, so deep is the anger and bitterness at what even well-meaning majoritarianism can do to the minority psyche.

4. "Whenever I had to do something like memorise the periodic table, my father would say the key to doing boring tasks is to think about not so much what you’re doing but the importance of why you’re doing it. Though when I asked him if slavery wouldn’t have been less psychologically damaging if they’d thought of it as ‘gardening’, I got such a vicious beating…" (Me Jr.)

Beatty, who has advanced degrees in psychology and creative writing, was well equipped to fashion a monster daddy you cannot help but end up liking.

A single dad, Me Sr. taught psychology in a community college but his main project was his son, "his little Anna Freud, his little case study". He devoted all his energies to educating him on the plight of the black race and inspiring him to be someone special, "a renaissance nigger".

He home-schooled his son; conducted experiments on him to toughen him up for the hard life that is a black person’s lot but that ended abortively when Me Jr preferred white dolls to black ones "because the white people got better accessories"; took his son along on his "Nigger Whisperer" assignments, i.e. talking "some nigger who'd 'done lost they motherfucking mind'" out of ending it all.

He started "the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the local think tank,” and bragged that “the black community was a lot like him — ABD."
"All but dissertation?"
"All but defeated."

Yet, he ended up, like too many others, shot dead by the police on a cold winter night for demanding they either give him a ticket or a lecture but not both. The officers took exception.

His legacy to his son was two fundamental questions: "Who am I? And how may I become myself?"

5. "This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything"(Me / Massa/ Bonbon/ The Sellout)

This opening sentence ranks with those great first lines like "It was best of times, it was the worst of times..." or, "All happy families resemble one another…"and instantly signals Beatty’s phenomenal literary prowess.

Images such as "self-lyncher"(for trying to commit suicide) and "sneakers so fucking new that if they had taken one shoe off and placed it to their ear like a conch shell, they'd hear the roar of an ocean of sweatshop labour," descriptions such as "he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark" and "a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit" leap from almost every page while his vast erudition and encyclopaedic intelligence enables him to glide effortlessly from discussions on law to filmmaking to critiques of intellectuals to the intricacies of horticulture.

So that in the end the book does not remain only about black America but of suffering humanity in general. On 'the day after the black dude was inaugurated,' one of his father’s friends told Me "he felt like the country, the United States of America, had finally paid off its debts.' 'And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect?' I asked him. He just shook his head at me. Said something to the effect that my father would be ashamed of me and that I’d never understand. And he’s right. I never will."

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