Under the layers of sardonic humour in which Beatty has wrapped “The Sellout” lies an important message: racism is alive and well in the United States. The novel is set in Dickens, LA, where “one’s self-worth comes from how one chooses to navigate that space. Walking is akin to begging in the streets”. Want to take public transport? No problem, you can use the RTD Rapid Transit District, otherwise known as the Rough, Tough and Dangerous. Kinshasa rejected Dickens as a twin city because “they thought Dickens was too black”. Beatty subverts racist tropes by setting up a form of modern slavery and segregation in Dickens: “White people are the new niggers… disenfranchised equals ready to fight back against the motherfucking system.” I read this as a critique of identity politics, the term itself used by Beatty in the “Apples and Oranges” chapter, detailing the extreme results that this new ideology will reach taken to its logical conclusion. In this regard, it is revealing that the protagonist is referred to as “Me” throughout, his name never revealed. The writing has a multitude of killer lines and Beatty touches on other themes such as imperialism, art and capitalism.
Me’s father, a self-proclaimed “Nigger-Whisperer”, performed multiple experiments on Me during the boy’s childhood. His thesis that black people would help somebody in a crowd led him to mug his own son in a bizarre attempt to prove his theory, only to end up inciting a violent pile-on in an insane, post-racial, post-ironic world. Beatty reverts to more traditional race relations by having Me killed off by the police and the non-ironic theme continues when Hominy says that it has “Been this way ever since we set foot in this country. Someone’s getting whipped or stopped and frisked”.
The novel contains a fascinating thought which predates the 2017 confederate statue debate: “That’s the difference between most oppressed peoples of the world and American blacks. They vow never to forget, and we want everything expunged from our record, sealed and filed away for eternity”. It is an interesting debate. The Confederate statues represent an egregious chapter in US history, yet it is important that this chapter is not forgotten. Beatty writes: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book- that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song”. This is redolent of Robert Conquest’s view that the key point of history is the “tone, form, and balance, the aesthetic” of how it is preserved. In a free society, the warts of history are exposed, rather than frozen off as they are in totalitarian regimes.
When Laura Jane says to Marpessa “You’re far too smart to know that it isn’t race that’s the problem but class”, Beatty explores the burgeoning world of intersectionality in his inimitably sarcastic way with the “Lost City of White Male Privilege” whose “very existence is denied by many”. There are so many lines where it is impossible not to laugh out loud. Take the discussion of the several “race wash” options: “regular whiteness (higher life expectancy), deluxe whiteness (world revolves around you and your concerns) and super deluxe whiteness (military service is for suckers)”!
Obama’s impact on race is discussed as the “falsehood that when one of your kind makes it, it means that you’ve all made it” and Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are “exemplars of how self-hatred can compel one to value mainstream acceptance over self-respect and morality”.
“Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except start a war” observes Me, before later musing of the US that “This country, the latent high school homosexual that it is, the mulatto passing for white that it is, the Neanderthal incessantly plucking its unibrow that it is, needs…somebody to throw baseballs at, to fag-bash, to nigger-stomp, to invade, to embargo”. Indeed. Beatty is at best ambivalent towards his home country: “You couldn’t shout “American, love it or leave it!” when deep down you longed to live in Toronto”.
Marpessa believes that “black literature sucks” because blacks are always referred to as foods and whites are not. Orwell and Kafka are apparent in the mix of Beatty’s influences, and the writing references Ulysses. The renaming of novels into black speak is hilarious, such as “The Great Blacksby” and “Mick Please: The Black Irish Journey from Ghetto to Gaelic”, but the absolute best is surely Foy’s renaming of Huckleberry Finn: “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit”. Just… brilliant!
Beatty’s prose is decent: “Knowing that the ugliest movie stars, the whitest wrappers, and the dumbest intellectuals are often the most respected members of their chosen profession, Hamp, the defence lawyer who looks like a criminal, confidently sets his toothpick on the lectern, runs his tongue over a gold-capped incisor, and straightens his suit, a baby-tooth-white, caftan-baggy, double-breasted ensemble that hangs on his bony frame like an empty hot-air balloon”.
Reading about the Crips applying for NATO membership almost caused me to fall off my couch! However, just when “The Sellout” seems to be written solely as a comedy, Beatty drops a razor-sharp societal observation. He observes that racism is everywhere and the only time it wasn’t was when Obama walked across the White House lawn. This contradicts the earlier thought about one man not meaning that they all succeed, yet that is the point: progress is not linear but society has no choice in the matter, as the only alternative is violence and “Professional niggers who just pop because the charade is over”.