The Sellout. Paul Beatty. Genre: Satire. 2015.
The Sellout is a satirical novel about America and all its ills. The protagonist, who’s only referred to as me, is a black man in court for owning a slave. He’s currently on trial for a court case involving this and sits with his feet up on the desk, smoking pot and giving the reader a gilb account of the events that led him here. He tells the readers about the town he grew up in, Dickens, which is no longer on the map, and he’d like to bring it back. We also know that the narrator’s father put him through quite a traumatizing childhood. Continuing from here, we learn that the narrator struck up a deal with Hominy Jenkins. He initially goes to help him, but Hominy insists that he does what he deems slave work for at least a few minutes a day. After being caught up in this, the narrator also pays a visit to the group his father founded known as the “dum-dum doughnut intellectuals” that’s now led by Foy Cheshire, a kind of antagonist to Me’s narrator, if, of course, the rest of the American Government and its decades of systematic oppression wasn’t already enough of one. After a series of events which spiral more and more into chaos, the narrator eventually winds up in court. Foy Cheshire is found innocent of the murder he was accused of. Hominy decides to free himself of slavery. Dickens and other cities magically appear once more. The narrator and Marpessa go to an opening mic and as Cheshire waves an American flag, the narrator is told “he’ll never understand,” and he, flippantly, agrees.
Historically, this text is important because it explores racism in America with a weird, satirical, and utterly relevant tone. We live in interesting times. No wonder the Greeks thought that a curse. Police brutality and colloquial racism run rampant in a society where these acts are so often ignored and refuted against happening at all. The way it works as a satire is especially interesting because often times telling a story the straight way can come off as preachy or something people won’t believe in general. Think The Yellow Wallpaper being sold as fiction or Peele’s route to Get Out and the comedic-horror take on widespread racism and oppression. The genre of satire has often been used throughout history to highlight inequality and oppression within society. On the list above this work could easily be written with something like Citizen or Bartleby, once more, the passive refusal and the idea of, “satirical” troupes being made very obvious to tell the reader there’s more going on in the narrative than meets the eye.
“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. History is the things that stay with you.”
“Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear.”
“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 snuck 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.”
–What does it mean to protest, to fight against something in history? Does history tell us to think one way with the literature by presenting popular narratives and allowing other texts to succeed/be wildly taught while others don’t?
–What does text such as this and Citizen suggest about racism and oppression in America? What does their moving away from traditional form and style suggest about the authors goals?
Historical Context: Paul Beatty. African-American male. Published “The Sellout” in 2016 (the version we read). Written in America, and takes place in “Dickens, a ghetto community on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles” (27). “The Sellout” is a satiric comedy on “slavery and segregation” in modern-day America (Beatty 23). Though many would argue America has always been separated by race, Beatty constructs an unusual fictional world in which blacks willingly segregate themselves. Beatty’s protagonist, regarded only as the Sellout, is a contemporary black man who enslaves another African-American (elderly) man, named Hominy, during the 2010s. After having his life saved by the narrator, Hominy proceeds to call the Sellout “massa” (Beatty 77), thus establishing a master/slave dynamic between the Sellout and Hominy, respectively.
Genre: Narrative/Satire. Instead of a poem or play, Beatty chose the literal form of a book to tell the Sellout’s story. It’s important to note Paul Beatty made the authorly choice to write a first-person narrative novel as opposed to other forms of literature. He chose to write and publish a narrative novel about slavery set in modern times, when slavery is supposed to be a part of American history, as in a past event. Given the earliest contents of the novel, in which the narrator recalls a trip to the zoo that saw a racist man pointing out “the ‘presidential’ silverback’s name… was Baraka” (Beatty 5), the likely timeline for The Sellout would be during Barack Obama’s presidency, around 150 years after the abolition of slavery. Beatty is a black author writing about two African-American characters who, ironically, want an anachronism (slavery) to make a comeback.
Theoretical/Analytical: One could analyze Beatty’s novel, especially its form, through Caroline Levine’s argument in “The Affordances of Form.” With Caroline Levine’s definition of forms in mind, it is possible Beatty wrote The Sellout as a novel because “many bounded wholes,” such as a book, “organize experience” for the readers (Levine 137). ). Beatty chose the form of a novel to share the story of the Sellout because it has “boundaries that distinguish inside from outside” (Levine 137), and the form of a novel affords the author, and his audience, “inclusion and exclusion” of the contents of the book (Levine 137). One could also compare/contrast Phillis Wheatley’s experience as a slave in America to Hominy’s experience. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” might provide plenty of material to compare each person’s differing experience and beliefs on slavery in the US.
Notes on The Sellout.
– Published by Paul Beatty om 2015.
– Won the Man Booker Prize in 2016. First time an American author had ever won.
– A Satire on race, race relations, politics, contemporary prejudices in the US today.
– My other classmates have already summarized the novel, refer to the above two discussions for summary.
– Here are some ways and questions you might be able to talk about The Sellout effectively:
1. Questions of form: Beatty’s use of prolepsis comes to mind. Readers begin the novel with “me” in the Supreme Court with a trial in which The Sellout has 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), which we come to know as his enslavement of Hominy and resegregation of Dickens. However, at the conclusion of the novel we don’t get the ruling that decides the sellout’s fate. The lack of a concrete ending highlights gives the form the same kind of satire the narrative does: Reader’s aren’t allowed closure despite our expectation of it. According to Beatty’s novel, the idea that we live in a post-racial world is similarly paradoxical; we should, but we ultimately don’t.
– Theory that might work with this particular reading: Levine, affordances of form the novel provides and what the effects of modifying those norms are.
2. Questions on conceptions of humanity/citizenship: This one is, I think, more obvious than questions of the Sellout’s form, but I think it bears repeating. This novel deals heavily with themes of self-worth and how that worth is constructed. Obviously racial conceptions of worth take center stage (see Hominy and his desire to perform slave labor, or his birthday scene on the bus in Chapter 10), but there is another way to look at this novel; the economic lens. Capitalistic value seems to be championed over humanistic worth. This is seen clearly through “me’s” childhood in the scene with the barbie dolls, or when he wishes that Darth Vader was his father. It seems like the sellout can only evaluate his own worth through some kind of consumer/capitalist lens.
– Theory for this: Screaming for Federici! The Great Caliban’s discussion on the worth of the body and how it relates to governmental control/oppression fits perfectly here with the discussion of real historical and fictional/satirical modern slavery.
Published in 2015, Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” is a contemporary novel that uses satire to address issues of race in the United States. As being both one of the most recent texts on the exam and a novel written by an American, people reading The Sellout today have a unique understanding of it because the historical significance is obvious. Most readers will find Beatty’s references and scenes vaguely similar to things that might actually happen in the real world. Of course, satire is not meant to be taken literally; there are parts of the novel that were not meant to be believable, yet it was like watching the real world in a funhouse mirror. Everything about it seems distorted and fake but if you squint and tilt your head, it becomes less “completely unrealistic” to “the truth but just exaggerated.”
Everyone else did a great job with the summaries, so instead of repeating, I will offer my thoughts on which theory I think will be most complementary.
Starting with theory, Levine would be a good choice for an analysis on what the reader is afforded by experiencing a full-length novel in this way. In what ways does it destabilize the reader? Why is that significant? Also, Sedgwick is another theory that might prove useful if one were to choose to write about The Sellout on the exam. The idea of being a paranoid reader is always important but even more so here than a normal book. Beatty’s novel actively forces the reader to pay close attention not only to what it happening but also if whatever is happening is even real. Remaining paranoid while reading a whole satirical novel is something we can all benefit from partly because it allows us to better think about what Beatty is trying to say about the real world. Race relations in America are nowhere near as bad as they are in The Sellout, but the way the events both echo the past and parody the present is uncanny. The representation of the black experience is unique and its differences compared to reality are worth talking about.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty is a satirical novel published in 2015, and was the recipient of the Man Booker Prize in 2016, makine Beatty the first American author to receive that honor.
Beatty’s novel revolves around the elimination of the fictional town of Dickens in California, and the fight that is taken by his protagonist in order to restore the town lines and preserve his home. Through the lens of a first-person narrator (a contemporary black male), and his companion, an elderly man that wishes to be re-enslaved (Hominy), Beatty’s novel takes the reader on a ride from California all the way to the Supreme Court, where he fights to reinstate segregation and his right to keep Hominy as a slave. Beatty’s entire novel acts as a social experiment, where even his narrator seems to have been conceived for the sole purpose of allowing his father to spread his own racial paranoia onto the next generation.
Some significant passages of Beatty’s novel include:
“I understand now 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, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief” (Beatty, 18). This passage seems to highlight the deeply broken relationship between the justice system and black Americans.
“You won’t find Dickens, California on the map, because about five years after my father died, and a year after I graduated college, it, too, perished. There was no loud send-off. Dickens didn’t go out with a bang like Nagasaki, Sodom, and Gomorrah, and my dad” (Beatty, 57). Here Beatty satirizes the media culture that we currently live in, as well as the idea of stolen-land and modern-day slavery. Later on the same page, he states that “When the housing boom hit in the early part of the century, many moderate-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles County underwent real estate makeovers. Once pleasant working-class enclaves became rife with fake tits and fake graduation and crime rates, hair and tree transplants, lipo- and cholosuctions”, emphasizing the ways that gentrification leads to the erasure of communities that have once been pillars of the working class.
Beatty’s decision to write his modern-day slave story leads one to wonder whether or not he was begging his readers to consider how far we have come as a society, while simultaneously pointing out the ways that we have remained exactly the same. While slavery may no longer be legal, it was not too long ago that our country was perfectly okay with segregation, and in many ways our current political moment leaves one wondering how long it will be until a movement like segregation becomes a reality once more. For as much as we would like to believe that we live in a post-racist society, The Sellout points out every hole in this shallow dream to uncover the reality- that we are merely tiptoeing around deep-seeded internalized racism that exists both in individuals as well as institutions, and to this there is no end in sight.
The Sellout can be read in political conversation with Rankine’s Citizen on the black experience in the United States, The Island, and “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Theoretical texts that can be paired with The Sellout are Casanova’s “Literature as World” and Levine’s “The Affordances of Form”. One can even make a case for Melamed’s “Making Global Citizens” and compare and contrast the ideals of “neoliberal multiculturalism” alongside Beatty’s narrator’s experiences living in what is supposed to be a post-racial world.
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