Week 6

It seems kind of uncanny that last week’s reading was about a woman who sacrifices herself to challenge the rule of a tyrannical king, and this week’s reading opens “in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America” (The Sellout, 3).  And the conditions of our protagonists arrival there aren’t precisely reflective of what we see in the news today, but I think they might be a little resonant with that news, too.

I am excited to hear what you think of Beatty’s novel, and also how you might use a key term from Levine’s article to read it. This week, see if you can put a keyterm on the blog before class (under “keyterms”) and ask: How could you use Levine’s argument to analyze The Sellout?

Other questions I want to consider when we meet include:

  • How does Beatty use the form of the novel to reflect on the politics of race in contemporary America?
  • What literary devices do you see him using in ways that are new to you, and how does this novel challenge your interpretive skills as a critic?
  • What do you find hard to explain in your reading so far, and what prompts your curiosity?
  • Which passages should we read together to think about the “good of literature” in this context?
  • In the evening class, we talked about the narrative device of prolepsis as something akin to fate, and I want to return to that in both classes. The Sellout is a novel that reveals its protagonist’s future at the beginning of the novel and then looks back to reconstruct the narrative of how he got here. How do you interpret this usage of proleptic form?

I also want to look closely at Levine’s argument about “the affordances of form.” What seems potentially useful to you about this theoretical text?

And in unrelated news, I’ve gotten the announcement about the accelerated M.A., and I’m posting it below. If you want to talk about it, just let me know!




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16 Responses to Week 6

  1. Maggie Cavota says:

    Beatty uses the novel to reflect powerfully on the absurdity of politics of race in contemporary America. He uses satire to key the reader into the idea of just how topsy turvy a world we live in. Blatant racism is excused everyday. When first reading this novel the irony and use of satire had definitely tripped me up. So much of it you wonder is it factious or serious for at least the first few pages. Beatty remarks about the “omnipresent guilt” of being black and juxtaposes it with apple pie and basket ball all while sitting in court about to start trial because he decided to own a slave named Hominy. While the first part of the book reads easily it can get confusing because the narrative is presented so straight forward, so assuredly and yet it’s clear. It’s frustrating but delightful. I still love the concept of the narrator being named Me because that might be the strangest juxtaposition; is he trying to alienate the reader or draw them in? Is he making a commentary on how so many stories of oppression are related and that we’re all more connected through this than not? Is he trying to say the exact opposite about how we need to define our situation and focus on the point of self in relation to grief/racism/prejudice to a certain degree to only realize how trapped we are? Most of all I think the use of proleptic form imbues a heavy sense of dramatic irony. We know the narrator is being tried for employing slavery and in the prologue a reader may wonder how you can sympathize with the narrator after that. If anything, putting that scene ahead of the entire novel shows just how unfair everything is and really breaks down the idea of “this is a bad protagonist” to “this is satire at its finest.”

    The passage I think that’s interesting to read together as a class is on page 27 and talks about Dickens, the community where the narrator grew up. I love the idea that even though Dickens is a deeply flawed place and he has a lot of problems with the people there, he’s still trying to put it back on the map. While this isn’t so much about racism and more about personal connections to the narrator I feel like it’s a good look on how there’s multiple threads going on in the novel and much of it is. As for “In affordances of form” I think this novel takes a lot of the “formal” vs. “social” debate and blends it. For the prologue we’re in the most political place possible and yet the syntactic structure is as lax as having a conversation with a friend. So much of the novel is contradictory and I think the idea of blending these two things so closely makes a big statement about how they’re intertwined and perhaps, ironically, when we try to separate them we create more problems.

  2. Venessa says:

    In regards to “form,” I believe The Sellout does embody the use of political form to set the stage for the novel. Levine, in “The Affordances of Form” states, “Crucially, politics also means enforcing hierarchies of high and low, white and black, masculine and feminine, straight and queer, have and have-not. In other words, politics involves activities of ordering, patterning, and shaping. And if the political is a matter of imposing and enforcing boundaries, temporal patterns, and hierarchies on experience, then there is no politics without form” (3). The political is essential to form. It shapes the way the events happen, and why the events are taking place. It basically determines all factors of a novel, and act as the building blocks, as all detail surround the political aspect in a novel. For Paul Beatty, this is explicit in The Sellout. From the beginning of the novel, the reader is dragged into the political sphere. As the story progresses, the narrator informs the reader of the environment that he lives in. Obviously politics plays a role in communal development. The fact that the narrator goes into detail of how society shaped father’s perspective, which in turn shaped his perspective, makes politics the center of form in the novel. The whole story surrounds the narrator’s upbringing and the politics of his community. How a place comes to be deemed “ghetto” is heavily influenced by political/social aspects. Going back to Levine, Beatty expresses those hierarchies of high and low, the racial differences, the gender differences, the sexuality differences, and the economic differences throughout the story. Politics is the thread woven throughout the novel that creates the form Beatty wishes to create. An example of politics setting the stage for the novel is when the narrator states, “Knowing that the ugliest movie stars, the whitest rappers, and the dumbest intellectuals are often the most respected members of their chosen profession…” (21). Clearly from that statement alone, the racial tone of the novel is set, and what is at the backbone of racism if not politics? The tone of the entire novel is set from just that sentence. It is politically backed, and therefore, the form is created out of a simple sentence of political structure.

  3. Emily Abrams says:

    While considering Levine’s argument on affordances of form this week, I also wondered if given a particular literary form provides particular allowances to audiences. While the distinctions between affordance and allowance can be arguably ambiguous, I viewed the former in terms of form as Levine outlined and the latter relative to author intentionality. Granted, I’m approaching this topic with uncertainty, proceeding with caution by writing abstractly for I’m unfamiliar with what might already be a formal literary analysis. What I mean by questioning literary allowances is I wonder if there is an extent to which an author invites readers to connect with the fictional protagonist(s) he or she creates or, conversely, how might an author create a sense of distance that he or she deliberately wants their reader to feel towards a given character. This deliberation of course circles back to the distance questions we considered for Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. I raise this topic again because of the nature of Beatty’s novel which left me once again concerned about intended and actualized reader receptivity.

    By applying Levine’s “affordances of form” to Beatty’s The Sellout, one might argue that the satirical novel form affords social critiques through the conventions of irony, parody, and the like. Levine makes an important distinction from what I consider with allowances, arguing that form’s allowances beckon readers to consider what “potentialities [of form] like latent,” as opposed to author intentionality or purpose of form (pg. 6). In other words, then, affordances are independent of author or purpose considerations. For Beatty’s case, Levine might argue that the form of satire alone provides ample opportunity for reader analysis of what this narrative is “capable” of achieving, such as illuminating the political, social, and/or racial realities or so on (pg. 6). He might argue that satire itself affords an underhanded realization of lived experiences, even if it is fictional. Yet, here I personally find it hard to detach author intentionality from these considerations.

    I am more curious about what allowances are established by The Sellout. I think Beatty’s form of satire* poses two major questions readers: to what extent are we the readers welcomed to engage/sympathize/empathize with this novel’s protagonists, and to what extent might readers be expected to assume a passenger seat role? I’m curious about the following: does satire in The Sellout invite readers to consider the deeper sociopolitical commentaries made? Is it meant to unnerve readers who finding humor in particular passages? Both may be simultaneously valid. I find this second question really significant because it directly relates reader experience, comfort, and/or complacency with American sociopolitical realities.

    It’s important to recognize humor is subjective and individual readers react to moments in the novel differently, so these next examples may be show partiality. I would argue there are satirical moments that more broadly humorous as they don’t really tug at identity politics. Consider Ford Cheshire’s announcement to the Dum Dum Intellectuals about his revisionist take on Huckleberry Finn to “The Pejorative-Free Adventure 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.” An understanding of Twain’s novel and the wide-spread national debates over the abundance of pejoratives in said novel, combined with Cheshire’s spin on the novel, generates a more universal humor for Beatty’s readers. Here, Beatty might be welcoming readers to see the potential for growth in American society oftentimes divisive on race issues.

    At the same time, I argue there are moments when Beatty expects readers to acknowledge America’s “repugnant” history, where satire is alternative meant to unsettle readers. In the Prologue, readers are presented with the narrator’s jaded critique as he sits before the Supreme Court: “Is it my fault that the only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement is that black people aren’t afraid of dogs as they used to be? No, it isn’t” (pg. 19) In these moments that are highly race-based critiques, some may find dark humor illustrated; it is here that I wonder about the allowance factor wielded by Beatty’s writing. We’re not welcomed to laugh. It’s a commentary fraught with images of America’s troubling past treatment of race. In minimizing strides, one wonders whether Beatty’s satire urges readers to be dissatisfied with race realities or whether by creating reader discomfort, his satire establishes distance for readers. Should we be finding humor in this novel? Or, rather, are we expected not to laugh? Which circumstance, I wonder, allows us to fully digest Beatty’s commentary.


    *As an aside, I find it important to note that Beatty himself is not wholly welcoming of the label “satire” for his novel because in his view, as he told the Scroll, “…People go “satire” – almost as a way of making it a little more palatable,” and he’s not wrong. He’s also said to the WSJ, “It’s not like I’m trying to be funny, necessarily, but it’s how I write and how I think. The part that scares me with the satire label is that there’s an implication of being entertaining in that word.”

    I’M SORRY THIS POST IS SO LONG! Tougaw’s class just had a lot discussions on Beatty.

  4. Deepika Khan says:

    Caroline Levine’s various definitions of “form” may be applied to Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” (Levine 2). Considering form can be “historical, emerging out of particular cultural and political circumstances” (Levine 2), it’s no wonder Beatty chose the form of a novel to express his opinion on inner race relations in America. Though the actual form of a novel has been around for centuries, the literary techniques of satire and irony, in regards to literature, has not. It wasn’t until I got to the seventh chapter that I realized what I was reading with horror was Paul Beatty’s brilliant use of satire in his novel, “The Sellout.” The novel challenges my interpretive skills as a critic because I didn’t recognize the use of satire and comedy by Beatty until the last leg of the reading. Instead of reading “The Sellout” as a satiric comedy on “slavery and segregation” in modern-day America (Beatty 23), I was aghast at the speaker’s account of his life on the West Coast. I thought I was reading some kind of sick, twisted fantasy novel that allowed the protagonist to have an elderly slave who believes, “true freedom is having the right to be a slave” (Beatty 83). Though the author used satire in a blatantly obvious way, I was a poor reader who didn’t connect the dots until toward the end of chapter six. I had a hard time distinguishing between fact or fiction because Beatty writes What I find hard to explain is the protagonist’s first name, which is never mentioned I believe. We know his family name is “Me” (Beatty 21), however, he is only mentioned by name by Foy Cheshire as “The Sellout” (Beatty 95). I’m curious to know why Paul Beatty chooses to refer to his narrator with a degrading nickname instead of his real one. He follows the proper form of a novel by giving it a title but chooses to keep his protagonist a no-named mystery. Ironically, however, as the readers, we know much about the early and past lives of the speaker, despite not knowing his name. Considering Paul Beatty’s usage of proleptic form in “The Sellout,” the prologue makes a lot more sense now. I thought I was going to be reading a political novel about an innocent man on trial, but I was completely wrong. Beatty’s commentary on the social, political, racial, historical, etc. condition of the United States in the past ten years or so is a hard pill to swallow. Knowing the narrator’s case makes it to the United States Supreme Court does not give me, as the reader, a bunch of hope that his story will have a happy ending. I really hope I’m proven wrong by Beatty and his characters.

  5. When I read the prologue of Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” I was immediately intrigued. I wondered why the protagonist was in court, and what would be the Supreme Court’s verdict. However, when I did find out later on why the narrator was in jail I was shocked. The narrator discusses how one justice is, “… demanding to know how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” (Beatty, 23). I found it ironic how the narrator is “black,” and he owns a slave. It was a difficult concept to wrap my head around without knowing why he owned a slave. I learned as the text progressed that, “Unable to distinguish between himself and the corny ‘I owe you my life, I’ll be your slave’ trope, Hominy had finally lost his mind, and I should’ve hospitalized him right then and there” (Beatty, 78). We learn from the narrator that after he saves Hominy’s life, Hominy decides he wants to be the narrator’s slave. Hominy goes as far as calling the narrator master. We see that the narrator wishes, now, that he took Hominy to a mental hospital rather than treating him as a slave.

    This scene from Beatty’s text reminded me of the discussion Levine’s “The Affordances of Form” has about the different forms text have had over the years. He asserts, “One of the great achievements of literary formalism has been the development of rich vocabularies and highly refined skills for differentiating among forms” (Levine, 4). Beatty’s form of writing this text is very different than most of the texts I have encountered. When Levine mentions how people were able to develop a skill “for differentiating among forms” it got me thinking about all of the forms I have encountered throughout the texts I have read over the years. Beatty creates a text with a protagonist who is sarcastic, a plot that’s ironic, and a form that’s different than most text that’s written. This is what feeds my curiosity to continue reading this text where I can’t predict what’s going to happen next.

  6. When considering the effect of prolepsis in Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, I believe Beatty implements this technique within the text for the audience to fully grasp why the narrator is in his current predicament. He begins the novel with a long explanation that although he is a “black man” he had never stolen anything and goes on to list several felonies/minor rude behaviors he has never committed. By emphasizing the fact that he has never committed a crime and yet the reader finds him arrested and at the Supreme Court, Beatty creates this discrepancy, garnering the reader’s attention from the very first page. Furthermore, by stylizing the text with this framework of prolepsis, the reader is able to go on a three-hundred-page journey where they are able to discover why exactly the narrator has been placed as he would put it, “in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America” (Beatty 3).

    Interestingly enough, although the novel is told in proleptic form the narrator’s reliability has to be somewhat questioned. With prolepsis, the protagonist’s future is told at the very beginning of the text, however, what if the protagonist themselves is not exactly aware of how they got there? While the narrator awaits his trial at the Supreme Court, he shockingly lights up a blunt declaring that he is “getting high in the highest court in the land” (7). Not only is this action (and pardon me for saying this) a huge ‘screw you’ to the government and all the officials around him. Additionally, it also has to make the reader do a double take to really analyze the rest of the text, and judge for themselves whether or not you believe that the events to come are real, or altered because of the narrator’s lack of dependability.

  7. Zara Diaby says:

    This is one of my favorite quotes from this novel, though there comes no end of supply of great pithy snarky quotes from this novel that will make your inner satirist chuckle. While reading this I kept thinking, why did Orhan Pamuk receive a Nobel prize for his works but Paul Beatty has not, in what context was body of works more special than Beatty’s? I got nothing, zip, zilch, nada, there was nothing, was Beatty not vocal enough about social truths? Did he not pander enough to audience in Zurich? I do not know, just a thought.
    why is there a state between being innocent or guilty, why can we not just be human, why are we considered to be either good or bad why are we placed into two categories?

    Paul Beatty uses the novel to discuss how politics is reliant on structuring the form of America. In Caroline Levine’s essay on form she states that form will be defined as, “all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference (Levine 3).” Form is responsible for the categories in which we are placed. Levine begs the question of where we (people/nations/races) belong in relation to space, in proximity to one another and answers that form allows politics to “impose [that] order” on us all. Though she goes on to explain that it is not an all-encompassing structure that dominates our every move in this plane, though it does wield a significant power. Levine goes on to discuss that she believes the best form of literature to discuss the use of forms to its best potential is narrative because, “narrative form affords is a careful attention to the ways in which forms come together, and to what happens when and after they meet. Narratives … tend to present causality metonymically, through sequences of events, rather than by positing some originary cause (Levine 19).”
    The Sellout reminds me of black films films/television shows like Don’t be a menace in South Central while drinking your juice in the hood or Hollywood Shuffle and Everybody Hates Chris, they dealt with the black experience, making social commentary, all while burying it under jokes and laugher. The same goes for “The Sellout,” it’s obviously a work of fiction by Paul Beatty, yet it litters its pages with jokes like those found in the TV show and movie, giving the reader a pause to stop and say, “wow, this does seem like a slice of life.” I experienced some of those moments, comparing myself to Me, thinking that this could happen to someone I know (while they may not retrieve a loved one’s body by horseback, they may win a wrongful death suit due to an unjust shooting). Just like Everybody Hates Chris is a commentary/spoof in Chris Rock’s life, this book is that for Me.
    “Dumbfounded, I stood before the court, trying to figure out if there was a state of being between ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent.’ Why were those my only alternatives? I thought. Why couldn’t I be ‘neither’ or ‘both’? After a long pause, I finally faced the bench and said, ‘Your Honor, I plead human.'(Beatty 15)”
    This quote relates to most of what we have read in this novel, he is a constant state of trying to find himself yet he is fixed to belong to one world, he goes through dichotomies of his existence, wanting to do agriculture, yet is forced to fulfill his role as a “nigger whisperer” or he wants to feel guilt for owning slaves yet he could care less about the state of the black community.

  8. Jude Binda says:

    Truth be told, I have never really been a fan of satire. I just think it’s too easy of an out for people to make distasteful jokes and then turn around and say “Gotcha!” It’s in the vein of “edgy comedy” and people use satire far too often as a get out of jail free card. Of course, humor is subjective, so something that I think is inappropriate could be completely fine to someone else. Anyways, I digress. There are examples of satire that are actually meaningful in exposing unideal parts of society. For me, a good satirical piece must take the form of an ugly aspect of something and make it apparent how terrible it is. Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” is among this group of pieces that use satire in a way that, I feel, is productive.

    Once again, I find it funny how our readings mirror our world. It’s like we’re in a television show where the characters just happen to be learning something in school that is connected to something going on in their world. Last week, we read Antigone (a woman standing up to an unjust government) and this week we are reading a book that seems to have commentary on the Supreme Court. Is all this a coincidence or is Professor Fisk a psychic?

    Beatty’s novel so far has been a head-turner, for sure. Admittedly, one of the first things I did was look up a picture of him to see what he looks like. Okay fine, I wanted to make sure he was black. Sue me. Because the content is so centered around issues that are prevalent to black culture, I was interested to see to what extent the author had experienced it. An area that I found interesting is when Beatty writes:
    “Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Court Justice glare, and ask, “Where you from, fool?” The correct answer, of course, is “Nowhere,” but sometimes they don’t hear you over the loud, sputtering, unmufflered engine, the contentious confirmation hearing, the liberal media’s questioning of credentials, the conniving black bitch accusing you of sexual harassment” (22).
    What can be said about the statement being made about origin? How is it relevant to the way in which people perceive others? If a high-ranking person came from less than ideal beginnings, what effect would it have on their image? In what ways do these factors impact people of color more than other groups?

  9. Kaitlin Margaret McDermott says:

    Last week, we talked about how amazing (read: shocking, wonderful, befuddling) it is that we, a modern audience, can still read the Greek tragedies, empathizing and aligning ourselves with the characters and their struggles. This thread of alignment with the central character(s) seems to be pulled to its extreme with this week’s reading: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. In Beatty’s novel, the reader experiences the narrative as told by “Me” — an otherwise unnamed character who relays the first bit of his story high from the highest court in the USA. There’s a lot of interesting discussion that could be had about the title of this book versus say, “Antigone” — with each main character gaining the titular role, albeit, perhaps with a different (or is it?) connotation. The rhetorical function of a title and this alignment of the reader with/against the main character is a fascinating component of how we consume texts, and I have no doubt that there is much literature on the topic.

    Alas, however, I want to think more about the connections between Pamuk and Beatty, and how their respective works situate them within the divide between real and fiction. As we discussed a few weeks ago, Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature shortly before writing The Museum of Innocence, casting Turkish literature in a new light, particularly towards broader, international readership. As such, Pamuk’s body of work (and his own body in itself) entered the complicated space of being the representative for, and representation of Turkish society, history, culture, and norms. Rather than being read as pure fiction, there was then the possibility of digestion of the material as a realistic representation of life in a “foreign” place. His novel subverts this classification, particularly through his narrative form and structure.

    Compared with Pamuk, Beatty’s novel similarly straddles the line between “real” and “fiction” in an interesting, strategic way. Beatty’s novel won the Booker Prize in 2016, highly significant as American authors rarely receive the prize. (For context, the prize was awarded every year from 1969 to 2017, and was won only twice by Americans. The Sellout took the prize in 2016, and American George Saunders won for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017). Like Pamuk’s celebrated body of work, I think that Beatty’s winning of this award warrants some attention when we think about the form of his novel, the language, and, maybe most notably, the content, when it is cast into the “world literary space” . Thanks to Professor Tougaw, I am one of the students in our class who had the opportunity to read The Sellout last spring. In the interest of staying far away from spoilers, I won’t discuss many particulars of “Me’s” actions, but I do want to think about how Beatty writes his novel, which presents both as decidedly fictional, yet grounded in our reality. Satire goes a long way towards accomplishing this, as does the absurd extreme of the novel’s plot (and language). However, I would argue that Beatty, similarly to Pamuk, wrote with an awareness that some readers would be inclined to read the novel as a picture of American society and history in context. On this, I think Beatty’s situation of the characters within particular well-known settings of American society is both apt and jarring.

    “Me” is a character without a name and without a place — his story elicits sympathy precisely because of his tragic beginnings. Like Antigone, Me seems almost doomed from the start, inheriting the real and intangible effects of centuries of historical oppression and deprivation of opportunity. His start seems bleak, and so does his end: we open at the close of his narrative, sitting in the Supreme Court as the justices look scathingly at the protagonist. With the feeling of judgement being cast even before the argument, Me is collected and uncaring about the events underway. It is as if he knows at once how his story will end, signaling to his reader that it is not his fate we should be invested in, but rather his origin. The form of the novel allows Beatty to shift novelistic norms from the telling of a story from beginning to end in somewhat/mostly chronological order, to subverting this insistence on chronology in favor of providing insight into a character and devaluing the “end” -focus of a narrative. I find this to be one of the most notable stylistic components of Beatty’s novel, as it reinforces the “fictionality” of the work, yet introduces key departure points for discussion on race, justice, and the law in American society.

  10. The Sellout by Paul Beatty creates its own form by the way that the author chooses to write the story. It’s clear that the story is written in the political world which we experience today, where in the news we often see police officers harming innocent victims, simply due to their race or another reason as to which they negatively associate the victim with. Beatty even discusses an example of this when the main character’s father is killed. The form is created in a time in which our political state, you could say is at it’s worst. There’s a leader in America, which isn’t much of a leader, instead he’s simply a follower who follows the rest of the people who are trying to reinforce the negative standards that America once had. And unfortunately, it’s successful which has highlighted just how divided our country has always been, though many people thought otherwise. Beatty is definitely stating matter of factly that we have real issues in America and not everything is tied up in a beautiful bow, everyone thinks that because it’s what they choose to believe and the facts which they choose to ignore. It’s refreshing to see that there are authors out there that can capture the political state of America in it’s horrific state and they’ll be able to turn that into a form to shape their book, it’s amazing.

    Beatty’s use of prolepsis in the text is interesting, he indicates that the main character is at the Supreme Court very early on in the novel. In The Sellout, the text states, “I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spill and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign” (Beatty 7). It’s clear that the crime he’s being put on trial for is horrific just from this quote. We later find out that the main character is going to the Supreme Court because he is a black man who in present time, owns a slave. It’s interesting because with the use of prolepsis we see a present moment and then there’s a flashback to a certain amount of time away from that, which then shows all the moments leading up to the moment that was presented initially. But it’s also interesting when you think about it because Beatty chooses to sort of contrast, or show in a similar manner, that in present day you have a African American man owning an African American slave. It’s interesting to see how time plays a part on both the prolepsis and how Beatty uses that to shape the crime which the main character is being faced with. In a way, that in itself seems like it could be it’s own form for the novel.

    In regards to Levine’s “The Affordances of Form, ” it’s interesting because Levine chooses to discuss form in multiple ways. But in terms of politics, Levine states, “Sorting out what goes where, the work of political power often involves enforcing restrictive containers and boundaries–such as nation-states, bounded subjects, and domestic walls” (3). It’s clear that politics to allow people in power, to stay in power, to ignore their wrongs and to make people who are right, feel as if they are wrong. It’s unfortunate, and we’ve seen this in recent news with the Kavanaugh’s case. Politics seems to be essential to form and how it influences literature. Levine’s definition of political form is exemplified by Beatty’s novel, The Sellout. Beatty clearly uses the form of politics, especially in recent times, to create his novel, and to create events that will connect with the audience. Right off the bat, the main character is on the steps of the Supreme Court, and as you read on you see that there is the issue of authority figures taking advantage of their power, like when the main character’s father is shot. Especially in this novel, political form is significant because that is what creates the book.

  11. I’m really enjoying Beatty’s “The Sellout” so far. I’m only a third of the way through and already I’ve laughed, cried, and a lot of other things. But – to address the questions for this week:

    How does Beatty use the form of the novel to reflect on the politics of race in contemporary America?

    The proleptic prologue of “The Sellout” tells the reader exactly where it’s going. Before Beatty begins even his first chapter, the reader knows he is leading us toward the narrator’s involvement in contemporary slavery. We don’t know how he’s going to get there, but we know that’s where he’s going to go. Perhaps that form is reflective of the current political climate in America; We know where we are, but how the hell did we get here? We’re in an unbelievable place, but we (not those of us in this class, but we as a nation) didn’t get here without making many equally unbelievable choices that went more or less ignored. Does that make sense? I don’t know.

    What do you find hard to explain in your reading so far, and what prompts your curiosity?

    I hate to return to the idea of distance, but I can’t help feeling like the narrator is unrelatable in an alienating way. Between the strange locale of his upbringing to its traumatic, abusive nature, the character borders on unbelievable. I feel like this characterization is a result of satirical exaggeration with the goal of commentary on the perceived difference between racial cultures and communities or something else that I’m having trouble parsing. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the way black people have historically been treated in the Americas? Objectified and brutalized as tools of industry, then given freedom and abandoned without the means to escape their origins of enslavement? Something about self-policing and self-soothing? I want to talk about this and I want to know more, because it has so much weight. I suppose if I had to pick a passage or passages to read, it would be the first half of the first chapter – the narrator as experiment.

    Excited to read more.

  12. I believe that one way that Levine’s articles comes to bring clarity to “The Sellout” is to bring notice to the social form that is evident in many texts, including Beatty’s. What is very evident in Beatty’s novel, to me, is the social form of Slavery taking many forms in the novel from the prologue that shows his present to his childhood and everything else that shows his journey to that moment in the present. As a child, the narrator describes being used as an experimental subject for his father’s psychological studies. He is raised on a farm, subjected to violence, and even made to pick cotton which further signifies his condition as a slave and his father’s motive to raise his as the man that black people were, are, and will become. What stands out to me is the author’s method to carry this theme of Slavery into not only the narrator’s life but through other characters and settings in the novel. Slavery is a direct link to being weak and powerless and though the disappearance of Dickens, Hominy, and even the narrator in the present can the readers see how slavery is still alive and kicking in America.
    Levine’s attraction to social form is present in the slavery emphasized in the narrator’s childhood, adulthood, and present condition. He goes from being a slave to a slave master. His evolution is more than just the base reflection of his actions but what is very often emphasized by his father’s psychological studies: he is the representation of his cultural group. He is the model of the oppressed and the oppressor. He is the man who is harmed by others and also harms his own too.
    The use of the author’s proleptic form is very common to film and novels but with isolating the present into the prologue, it makes the prologue harder to reader but symbolic.Beatty seems to tell us the beginning is now and the past is the past that emphasizes the now but what really is true is that the beginning began a long time ago from when the narrator was a child, to when his father dies, to the disappearance of Dickens. To understand why the narrator is there in D.C. at all, the readers must read to know the journey and read to find out.

    What sparks my curiosity is why the narrator has no name. Is it because the narrator is a symbol and thus represents and can be any one of us? Everyone one else has a name except the narrator who tells the story and is the main character. Why isn’t he named?

    One section that would be fun to read together is chapter six of the first section. I think that chapter is very powerful to the meaning of Dickens and its disappearance, to the effect is has on people. for example, Hominy who says, “The whip feels good on the back, but the sign feels good on the heart” which leads the narrator and the readers to question what is really needed to save everyone.

  13. Khurram says:

    Oof, what a novel. I’m writing this before I’ve finished The Sellout, but I have to say, what started as satire became increasingly uncomfortable to smile at (or with? Who knows, I stopped early on either way). Uncomfortable is the key term here, it comes (as a paraphrase) from the author himself. In an interview for The Paris Review, Paul Beatty expresses his surprise that the novel is considered comic, saying, “But it’s an easy way not to talk about anything else” and, “It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else” (Jackson).

    This is a deeply unsettling novel. I can pinpoint the exact moment for me when I felt my smile fade: as The Sellout’s narrator recalls his father’s death, he debates an officer on what should happen to his father’s corpse, and the officer says, “You have to let the system hold the men responsible for this accountable. So just give me the body” (50). Possession of a black body. It instantly reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, where the black body is often mentioned by Coates as something destroyed, something owned, something considered lesser, something beautiful, something pillaged, something to be protected, something broken. Something (clearly not “someone” enough) on which injustices are expressed, and through which injustices are fought. Theoretically, anyway, certainly, the narrator in Beatty’s novel doesn’t believe the latter to be true. An absurd image can be humorous; it could also sting.

    I think there are a lot of keywords in Caroline Levine’s, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, as well as in the chapter we have, The Affordance of Form (up to where I’ve read, anyway, I promise I’ll finish before tomorrow, cross my heart) that can be applied to The Sellout. Form, political power, affordance, aesthetics, enclosures, restrictions, they’re all there. I want to focus a bit on a specific affordance: portability, or the idea that certain principles and patterns of all forms can be moved and applied to “new contexts” (7).

    The portable form to consider in Beatty’s novel is the motto, a short unifying sentence that could stand in for a person or a whole population. It’s a requirement to identity elsewhere (think of the crests of sports teams or the mission statements of corporations), but it could also be inherently restrictive. In Beatty’s novel, the motto serves as a tool for standard and personal identity, or even just slogan comfort, but its rejection is because, per the speaker, the black population cannot see itself as “monolithic” (12). The narrator admits to once thinking a unified motto would solve “black America’s problems” (9), but he also says, “They won’t admit it, but every black person thinks they’re better than every other black person” (12). The motto in the novel is a stand-in for expression where someone doesn’t have the capability of personal expression (43). The motto, a slogan of identity, and as such, a form that traffics in generalities (even the idea of individual mottos usually implies, outside of The Sellout, as belonging, say, to a family instead of a person, not a person instead of a group), is so fractured in the novel as to pop up everywhere, but represent no universal set of a group. The black workingman’s motto (43) isn’t “People eat the shit you shovel them” (54). “Dickens was me” (40) wasn’t the town’s slogan. It can be explored and applied here, even if it isn’t commonplace in the setting and people of this novel. The portable affordance of the form of a motto moves in from abroad (like, say, the Supreme Court), and in The Sellout, it pulls and pulls, expands, retracts, and refracts in the humor, the politics, the bizarreness, the discomfort of this novel.

  14. Cassandra says:

    Looking at prolepsis as a narrative device in The Sellout is a good starting point in analyzing the novel’s form. By revealing the narrators fate and transgressions at the beginning of the novel, Beatty creates suspense in the reader. Why is the narrator so remorseless? How is it that he can be so far removed that he has the mindset where he states that he’s “on trial for my life, and for the first time ever not feel guilty” (17). If Beatty were to begin with the narrators childhood, the move wouldn’t have the same effect. Of course someone who was subjected to traumatic experiences by his father is going to be messed up. The reader could easily get the wrong idea that it is the narrators traumatic beginnings that messed him up so much. Of course that contributes to it, but I think Beatty wants to make a statement that the real culprit is institutional racism. By leaving the reader in suspense, and making the narrator’s Blackness such a primary focus, Beatty shifts the focus onto what it’s like to be Black in America. While waiting in the Supreme Court, the narrator realizes that “the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent” (18). The impact of a racist society on Black psychology is deeply felt. Knowing that the narrator was abused as a child beforehand would essentially be a “red-herring” to the real problem of white supremacy. Also, the mention of cognitive dissonance makes even more sense once you connect it to the narrator’s background in having a psychologist father. Beatty’s form is a good example of Levine’s argument that you can’t escape a sociopolitical analysis when discussing form. Otherwise, the audience suspense would be the main reason for structuring his move this way, when the intention is obviously much more political.

  15. Stacey McDonald says:

    Beatty’s use of the form of the novel as a platform upon which to reflect on the politics of race in contemporary America, to me, completely defines what is good about literature. We have read so much about issues the issues that are affecting us yesterday, today, and in the future, and that is what I believe that Beatty has managed to capture all of these things in one in an effort to think about how far we have not come in terms of humanity and societal progress.

    Referencing the bystander effect, the mottos of men, what it means to feel black guilt, the beauty threshold, Beatty opens the eyes of his readers that do not think twice about how the color of one’s skin can affect the lens through which they see the world, and see themselves.
    He seems to call upon The Republic in saying that “Be it ancient Rome or modern-day America, you’re either a citizen or a slave” (Beatty, 6). But more so than calling on Plato’s ideals, he calls upon the way that our society conditions us to view one another. Everything that we are taught is so very black, white, and brown.

    To be frank, why the hell should we care what race is the majority? Why does the idea of losing that status instill fear in the hearts of so many who believe that they will somehow be losing? Behind the pigmented flesh that protects us from the sun and infection, are we not all the same? Do we not all bleed red blood, and inhale oxygen? We are all humans, we, collectively, are one race that was simply divided based on the opinions of a few on what constituted as beautiful and superior. But those opinions are vastly outdated, and demand to be replaced, now more than ever.

    I think that the passage that stuck out to me the most can be found on page 43;
    You’re supposed to cry when your dad dies. Curse the system because your father has
    died at the hands of the police. Bemoan being lower-middle-class and colored in a police
    state that protects only rich white people and movie stars of all races, although I can’t think of any Asian-American ones. But I didn’t cry. I thought his death was a trick. Another one of his elaborate schemes to educate me on the plight of the black race and inspire me to make something of myself, I half expected him to get up, brush himself off, and say “See, nigger, if this could happen to the world’s smartest black man, just imagine what could happen to your dumb ass. Just because racism is dead doesn’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight.
    In my opinion, this passage seems to comment on 80% of the issues that we are dealing with in our current political climate. There is a lack of diversity in Hollywood, and not enough representation of those that make up such a rich part of our world, the world that movies are supposed to be reflecting. The blonde caucasian girl does not always fall for the tall caucasian man, and vice versa. Racism is far from dead, and if nothing else, those that have come out in support of our current President have done their service in showing the world just how alive it still is. Something needs to be done about the police shootings of unarmed men. A man is a man, and the color of his skin should have no bearing on whether or not he should feel fearful when in sight of a police car. We need to do better, not only for those that constantly find themselves victims of the system, but for those that do their best to protect and uphold what it is that we love about this country, and are given a bad name because of the actions of their reckless and irresponsible counterparts.

    Reflecting, once again on our previous readings, Sophocles stated, through the voice of his Antigone that “The state is sick” (1170), and Beatty’s The Sellout is providing us with a list of the symptoms that this sickness entails. I so look forward to continue in my reading, and to hopefully finding a cure.

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