Much is made in fiction of the narrative arc. Very little is spoken about the readers’ trajectory; until now. That journey will be elevated to an unavoidable talking point with the surprising and, in some quarters, controversial choice of American author Paul Beatty’s dazzling, dizzying race relations satire “The Sellout” as this year’s Man Booker Prize winner.
My own trajectory went something like this: this is impenetrable. Clever but I hate it. Funny but I really hate it. This is exhausting. I feel assaulted. Right, I’m putting it down. But actually, I want to know what happens next. It’s an onslaught of provocative ideas (a return to slavery anyone?) and slyly casual references to Jean-Luc Godard, Robespierre and Björk. Full steam ahead, then. No! Wow. No! Brilliant. I survived. Give the man a £50,000 award.
“That makes me really happy,” says Beatty, when I tell him I threw “The Sellout” down, then picked it up again. I’m genuinely not sure which of these makes him happier.
“I know it’s a difficult book, but I hope readers come away from it thinking. That’s all I can ask. There’s something very powerful about seeing life from a different perspective. When you read a great book it’s like there’s a weight in your chest — or it can liberate you from a weight in your chest. It makes a difference.”
Beatty, 54, who teaches creative writing at the University of Colombia in New York, was in tears at the Booker awards ceremony. He felt tongue-tied. By his own account, he is “not a good public speaker”. Yet on paper his dangerous thoughts dance like impish angels on a pinhead. His lacerating observations on race and racism are laced with the savage wit of a stand-up.
The opening line adeptly sets out Beatty’s stall: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything,” says the narrator of “The Sellout”. A relatively slim volume — 289 pages — by Booker standards, the book is so densely written that it requires (or rather grabs you by the collar, pushes you against the wall and demands) close reading.
The plot is outlandish, but there is method in the madness and profundity in the surreal misadventures of an African-American boy brought up in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which is a place of gangland gunfire and police brutality. His father conducts racially skewed psychology studies on him involving electrodes, physical chastisement and emotional abuse. It’s both horrible and hilarious.
Later, when the authorities decide to ethnically cleanse Dickens from the map, the narrator spearheads a radical intervention by reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school. Exam results improve, but he ends up in the Supreme Court, answering for his crimes against the most sacred tenets of the American Constitution.
“The Sellout” is strong meat, laden with expletives and endless repetition of the “n” word. It was also feted as one of the best books of 2015 by the “New York Times Book Review”, the “New Yorker”, “Wall Street Times” and “Newsweek” and awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
The Man Booker judges praised Beatty’s riskiness, audacity and his ability to meld comedy and tragedy into something new and potent. “Timely” is another oft-repeated epithet. “The Sellout” has been applauded for appearing as racial tensions threaten to tear America apart and the spectre of Donald Trump looms large. Yet this is a work that has been seven years in the writing. “People keep on referring to the timing of the book. I think it’s nice to know it has some relevance,” says Beatty, mildly, “but to me, this is a book about shifting borders. Times don’t really change.
“For some people, the racism issue is old news; for others, it’s a wake-up call. We all pick and choose when we want to listen; when [US President Barack] Obama goes on television and addresses the nation it forces certain people to pay attention to the police shootings, but there are communities where it’s part of their everyday experience.”
In this respect, the election of a black man not just once but twice to the White House appears to have made little difference to the institutionalised racism at the heart of the US. “Obama was the president he said he would be, one who said he was going to assassinate [Osama] Bin Laden and reform healthcare,” is Beatty’s cryptic response. “He did a good job, but was there a new dawn? Let’s just say that people might miss him at some level when the new incumbent settles in.”
Beatty believes that Trump will lose, but points out that he has a real constituency in the country. “Trump didn’t come out of nowhere — he represents a part of America that’s out there,” says Beatty. “We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Beatty and his two sisters were born in Los Angeles and raised by their mother. Academically gifted, he went on to study psychology in Boston. After graduation he stayed on to do a doctorate, but three years in he dropped out in order to write. He was drawn to poetry, winning a grand slam spoken word poetry title and writing two volumes of poetry before he penned his first novel, “The White Boy Shuffle”, in 1996.
Then came “Tuff” in 2000, followed in 2008 by “Slumberland”, set in Berlin. Beatty also gained a masters in creative writing at Brooklyn College under Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. “He immediately impressed me with his generosity of spirit and his flawless ear for language and intention. He taught me that people can tell if you are [expletive] them, so I became aware of when I was [expletive].”
His year spent in Berlin proved to be tough but inspirational. “It was good for me not to understand and to try to figure out what was being said. The Germans are very precise with language. The country was examining itself and I loved how willing they were to both remember and forget the past.”
America will need to do both if it is to progress from being a nation built on racial iniquity to one happy in its own skin. Regardless of the skin’s colour. Although “The Sellout” sizzles with indignation, Beatty is an introverted, thoughtful soul who finds writing a slog and can’t bear to move on to the next sentence until the previous one is entirely perfect.
When I tell him that, as far as ideas go, my abiding impression of “The Sellout” is that being black virtually constitutes a full-time job, he laughs in agreement. “Yes, being black is a full-time job: sometimes you are invisible, other times you are hyper-visible,” he says. “Sometimes you are welcome, other times you are not.
The thermostat is always moving and you have to keep adapting to find some comfort level. Richard Pryor used to talk about going to Africa and people there telling him he was white. Even though he was black, he just wasn’t black enough.”
This ongoing recalibration calls to mind “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which her Nigerian narrator notes that before she came to America she did not know she was black. “Non-American black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
Perhaps after reading “The Sellout”, America might care a little more. For now, Beatty is enjoying the affirmation that a Man Booker Prize affords any writer. Finally, perhaps belatedly, I ask if he prefers to be referred to as Afro-American or black. Beatty replies with easy grace: “Tall. Just say I’m tall, that works for me.”
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2016
“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty is published by Oneworld.