The joke’s on you if you missed our November book club meeting! We drank heaps of tea, ate loads of donuts and discussed last year’s Booker prize winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Set in modern Los Angeles, The Sellout follows one man’s struggle to put his home city of Dickens back on the map. His approach progresses from building road signs and painting city boundaries to reinstating slavery and segregating a local high school – with the latter actions ultimately landing him in the Supreme Court. The book has been praised as “daring and abrasive”, a “galvanizing satire of post-racial America”, with the Financial Times even going so far as to call it “fruity”. So, with insatiable appetites, we dug in . . .
Our first topic of debate was the setting. I believe we all agreed that The Sellout questioned notions of race from all over the world. However, from the pop-culture references to the location of the nameless protagonist’s farm, the book is firmly planted in America. And perhaps if we were being even more precise, The Sellout is specific to south California. Readers encounter cultural disputes caused by urban renewal and clashes between African American and Hispanic communities. These are arguably more unique to Los Angeles, while the other topics that Beatty discusses are perhaps more universal (de facto segregation, racial profiling, police brutality and disparities in educational opportunities). I think everyone was also surprised to find out that farm where the narrator lives was drawn from reality, as the fictional city of Dickens is apparently drawn from the real-life Richland Farms area in Compton. This certainly added weight to The Sellout, strengthening the link between the farfetched plot and real life issues.
The plot was probably the main point of contention. At quite a few points the story seems to take a backseat while Beatty goes off on long riffs or outbursts. For some book clubbers these were pointless. Yet for others they were fantastic additions which were genuinely laugh-out-loud. Beatty’s rapier wit is perhaps exemplified in the re-imagined works of literature the character Foy Cheshire writes, which include Of Rice and Yen, The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade and The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit. But this stand-up-routine-esque style wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Plus people were right to mention that the novel did have quite a weak ending. Ultimately, we were left asking what happened at the Supreme Court trial? What happened to our protagonist? And, most importantly, what was the point Beatty was actually trying to hammer home? The novel certainly made us consider issues surrounding race and prejudice but was there an overarching purpose? Or perhaps that was the point?
Adam, Carnegie Library book group