Review: The Sellout

I’ve been rolling The Sellout around in my head for a few days and I think Paul Beatty’s work may be that rarest of books, one that deserves to become a classic.

Like the underlying societal issues it addresses, Sellout is surprisingly complex. On its surface the story of the protagonist, a black urban farmer cum Supreme Court defendant charged with holding another black man in willing bondage, is – perhaps unexpectedly – pretty direct. If he’s walking a tightrope to avoid suspension of disbelief, Beatty does so with such panache that any crevasse, rope, or danger curls up invisibly.

In order to tell the tale, Beatty creates an exaggerated view of America and LA rife with magical elements.  The most comic and dynamic such elements – e.g.,  the protagonist’s weed with surprisingly specific effects and the acrobatic city bus his girlfriend drives – sharply define borders with the real world.  Other elements, e.g., the miraculous neighborhoods of LA being systemically removed from maps and consciousness by gentrifying forces, delineate hazier borders between magic and reality.  Different people will see the line different places and each may learn something by trying to work out the border together – “Wait; who changed the area’s name?  OK, I mean put up the signs…”  “Was it really that unusual a place?”  “How? You’re kidding, right?!”

Anyone who’s pulled on a thread that touches on race or gender and privilege in America with an informed, intimate interlocutor will recognize the process of enlightenment and discovery. Every plot point in The Sellout seems to me that it could launch that kind of discovery.  It could also be met with simple disbelief and hostility as well.  These are the dangers of the examined life and of literary contemplation.  What’s remarkable about The Sellout is how fertile a ground it is for both examination and contemplation.

Even if you have no interest in society, race, Los Angeles or any of the other issues I see reflected in the book, it’s well worth reading just to bask in Beatty’s beautiful and powerful expressions.  He displays the rhythm and rhyme of a poet – or a musical virtuoso – while simultaneously grabbing imagery and vocabulary that snares meaning without caging it.  I understand that makes no sense; I can’t write like Beatty, either.

A lot of the book feels uncomfortable. Beatty’s world lets the reader sneak into the difficult and unsettling hollows of our world, but their essence is to be difficult and unsettling. Herein lies the power of The Sellout.  Beatty takes his readers to the nexus of clarity and ambiguity of so many spots where society’s fabric binds that talking about it with anyone will lead somewhere unexpected.  And it’s too compelling to shut up about.

A must.

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