Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Paul Beatty, _The Sellout_

FUNNY THING, THE Sellout kept  reminding me of the Martin Amis of the late 1980s--nonstop fizz and fireworks in the sentences, laugh-out-loud funny, killingly-aimed satire--but Amis himself still has not won the Booker. It's as though Beatty out-Amis'd Amis.

The novels' unnamed narrator lives in what used to be Dickens, CA, which must be not too far from South Central L.A. He maintains a kind of farm, or extensive truck patch, left him by his late father, founder of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a kind of black consciousness group that meets at a donut shop, now led, after a fashion, by one Foy Cheshire, who seems to be the Cornel West of Dickens and who is the one who always refers to the narrator as "sellout."

The narrator seems also to be the chief support of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who is chagrined that some of his best performances no longer get shown because they are deemed too racist. Hominy has a longing for the bad old days, to assuage which longing the narrator does what he can to recreate the boundaries and barriers of segregation, even letting Hominy designate himself as "slave" on the farm (not that he does any work).

These arrangement buck up not only Hominy's spirits, but those of everybody in the neighborhood. Why does the revival of these injustices bring a sense of well-being? Because, as the narrator puts it, "I've whispered 'Racism' is a post-racial world," or, as his lawyer puts it when the narrator is called up before the Supreme Court:

In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed  unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he's pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.

That is, by conjuring up an objective correlative for the racism the narrator and his fellow Dickensians experience every day, the racism that the white population keeps announcing has been long eradicated, the narrator has saved his community from chronic cognitive dissonance, and  they all immediately start to feel a little better.

I don't know if Amis at his peak was ever this brilliantly Swiftian.

This would be a hard novel to teach to contemporary undergraduates in my part of the world, though. The riff on Clarence Thomas on pp. 19-20, for instance. For one thing, the passage does not even name Clarence Thomas. And even if my students were told who justice being described is, they might struggle to unpack a sentence like this one:

There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor, silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice.

And that's just one sentence. There are plenty more like it on every page. It's sentences like that one that make The Sellout about the best novel of 2016, but The Underground Railroad is probably going to land on a lot more syllabuses.

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