The Sellout

The SelloutSatire is hard. It’s hard to write and hard to read. And I’ll admit straight off that I’m not good at reading it. If the point of the jokes are too obvious, I get annoyed. If it’s too subtle, I miss it. And if there’s not much beyond jokes, I get frustrated and bored. So I’m not the ideal reader for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I tried to read it earlier this year and got bored with it and didn’t finish. (And, as I’ve mentioned before, the library copy I read was mildewed and gave me a headache.) But, in the interests of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, I gave it another try. I finished this time, so that’s a plus, but I’m still not this book’s ideal reader.

The book is chock-a-block with gags and one-liners, usually involving race. It’s clear from the start that we’re not meant to take the jokes seriously, as the main character Bonbon declares:

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snick into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.

Bonbon Me has been summoned to the Supreme Court because he has been found in violation of the Constitution. His crime? Owning a slave and promoting segregation. It’s not as simple as all that, of course. The slave, a man named Hominy and the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, asked to be enslaved. And Bonbon’s efforts at segregation brought improvements to the black and brown citizens of his neighborhood.

As I’ve already noted, I’m not the best audience for satire. But, as I read this, I struggle to understand who is. It’s meant, I think, to be confronting, but until the last few chapters, I found it too over-the-top to ever actually feel confronted. Toward the end, some complexity regarding what the best answers are for America’s race problems is introduced, and I appreciated that. There’s also some interesting commentary around stereotypes and how people find comfort in them, including those being stereotyped.

In the end, I felt like this book was too interested in being outrageous to ever win me over. The characters and plot are vehicles for transgressive jokes and commentary. They never turn into living, breathing people experiencing a high-stakes situation. It’s just very much not my kind of book.

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15 Responses to The Sellout

  1. Leslie says:

    I think we’ve talked about satire before, but I am definitely not the right reader for it either. (I didn’t realize The Sellout was satire – I’m much less excited to read it now than I was yesterday.) I’m currently reading Breakfast of Champions and finding it difficult in a lot of ways.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve only read one Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), and parts of it were interesting, but it’s not my favorite kind of book. I can see the skill in this kind of thing, but I find it hard to love.

  2. Ola says:

    Basing only on the quote I think I might be the right audience, it intrigued me. But then I get your point about satire, it is hard to read, and it may be especially hard to read this satire being non American.

    • Teresa says:

      If you liked the quote, it might be worth trying! It’s pretty indicative of the tone throughout. And the fact that it ended up on the Booker longlist shows that at least some non-American readers found that it works.

  3. Jenny says:

    I think of satires I’ve really enjoyed, and some of them are the way you describe here, with flatter characters (Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Hard Times, even at a stretch 1984) but there are other books that could be described as satire that are wonderfully deep. I recently read Dead Souls by Gogol and it’s amazing. Or The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Or even Vanity Fair, or some of Evelyn Waugh’s books — which are funny but moving as well. I personally think the success of satire largely depends on the skill of the author (though this is such a platitude — surely the success of any novel depends on the skill of the author — but satire may be trickier than most.)

    • Teresa says:

      I can think of a lot of satirical plays that I’ve loved and, as I think we’ve talked about, short stories can work well. And there are writers who can create satirical stories that feel alive (I’d argue that Austen and Trollope fit that bill). But those examples are rare.

      I was actually thinking about 1984 as I read Hystopia a couple of weeks ago, and it came to mind again as I was reading this. I love 1984, even though it’s info-dumpy and has flat characters, and I think the success hinges on the high-stakes plot. Bland Winston is such an everyperson that we the readers end up being Winston and feeling his fear. Bonbon Me is too specific a character for that to work. And as for stakes, the Supreme Court is no Room 101. (And when comparing it to Hystopia, I could see the advantage of the 1984 info dump.)

  4. Jeanne says:

    I am dismayed at how many of my fellow readers say they don’t enjoy satire. I think there are a lot of factors, but one is certainly that a novel-length satire is hard to sustain with the right degree of skill. What you say about this character being too specific sounds right. And yet I really need to get to this book and see what I think!

    • Teresa says:

      I think part of the reason I’m not inclined to like satire, especially novel-length satire, is because it is so hard to sustain. Story or characters often fall flat.

      I’ve been thinking more about Bonbon’s specificity. He was the subject of his father’s experimentation when he was a child, but maybe we’re all subject’s of society’s experiments. Framing it that way could make him more of an everyperson. If you read it, I’ll be eager to read your thoughts! I think you’ll appreciate it more than I did.

  5. Jay says:

    This book made for a really interesting discussion at my book club, which read it about four months ago. It got mixed reviews from our members, some thought it was brilliantly funny, others didn’t really get it at all. I was ambivalent with a foot in both camps. I found the writing impressive enough to want to read this author again, however.

    • Teresa says:

      This would be a great book club book, and I can imagine it being divisive! Although it wasn’t exactly my thing, I wouldn’t rule out reading something else by Beatty. He apparently started as a poet, and I can see how he’d be good at poetry.

  6. I’ve said a number of times that longform satire isn’t for me. Even when I’m excited for it — as I am with this book, still? — the most likely outcome is the book just not being my jam. Shortform satire tends to be much better executed, I think because longform satire has to be more than just satire.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, that’s it exactly. Short-form satire can get in there, punch hard at its point, and leave you breathless. But long-form satire needs more than jokes and commentary for me to enjoy it.

  7. jenp27 says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it. I thought the book was brilliant but really dense and will require a rereading on my part. We read it for our shadow panel too and I think it’s one of the few books that we have all loved (so far). I’m generally tend to feel the way you do about satire – it’s not my favorite. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. For me it wasn’t so much funny (although it certainly had it’s moments of hilarity) as it was thought-provoking and an interesting take on race in America.

    • Teresa says:

      I believe our Shadow Panel is split 3-2, with 3 loving it and 2 not so much. It’s not a book I’d be mad to see advance because I can see that it’s good at what it’s trying to do. It’s just that it’s not the kind of book I find easy to love.

  8. Stefanie says:

    Hmm, sometimes I like satire but I think for the most part it isn’t my favorite. I think this might be one I will pass by.

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