Talking to The Paris Review last year, Paul Beatty said he thinks plot is a “very subjective” element. Fortuitously, plotting doesn’t seem important to The Sellout, his latest novel and recently-announced winner of the Man Booker. The unnamed narrator, subject in childhood to an experimenting psychoanalyst father, meanders around his life as an inner-city farmer in present-day Dickens—a kind of fictional Compton—accompanied by Hominy, a washed-up actor who insists on being his slave and encountering Marpessa, his ex who now drives buses. In the place of “plot”, there is at least an “idea”, a selling point. The narrator wants to resegregate his city, and ultimately all of America. With Hominy’s help, he starts segregating Marpessa’s bus and works his way up to local education.
It is, surprisingly, quite a funny book. In the same interview, Beatty was asked if he was a satirist, to which he replied, “No, not at all. I’m surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel.” His publishers apparently didn’t get the memo: the cover of my fresh Man-Booker-stamped copy has a Guardian quote calling the work a “lacerating American satire”, and the blurb adds that it is “biting satire” that shows off Beatty’s “comic genius”. (On Beatty’s superb sense of humour, the irony is surely not lost: this novel is all about how difficult it is to control identity.) But he forgets that comedy is very different to satire. Take slapstick or puns—they’re rarely satirical. And some of the finest satire is cynically depressing.
I found The Sellout actually combines comedy and satire, and does it very well. The narrative returns semi-regularly to certain scenes: childhood experiments, daily farm life, or local black intellectual meetings. But large parts are just based on Beatty riffi ng off a pithy idea or throwaway remark—a whole fifty pages play around with the phrase “Too many Mexicans”. Occasionally, the humour touches slapstick. It uses lots of puns and altogether makes the book’s discernible action comically surreal. The quick movement of action is aided by very tight prose.
Altogether, it feels like this book would make a great stand-up routine—and that’s where it might let some readers down. Experiencing The Sellout in one sitting, like one experiences stand-up, would be more interesting than pick-up-put-down reading. Unfortunately, at just shy of 300 pages reading it all in one go would be tricky. Therefore, the complaint that each time you return to the book it feels like more-of-the-same is not without merit. People not only have different tastes in humour, but also different saturation levels—even for humour they enjoy.
This isn’t the same criticism as some others have felt. Amazonites complaining in their reviews that there are too many references to American pop-culture, African-American history and culture in general, have put down The Sellout outraged by the idea that a book might ask its reader to think, or to learn, something that they didn’t know. Admittedly, Beatty namechecks, titledrops, and codeswitches like he’s blended the contents of a liberal arts syllabus. But the result seems much more genuinely rich than strutting. And if you’re not reading to have something new revealed to you, then why are you reading?
The more sombre parts of The Sellout shouldn’t be glossed over. In places—after, for instance, two of the book’s most important shootings—a tone that doesn’t even attempt to be funny, but takes on a searing anger at racial injustice, is switched on. And the uncomical satirical moments are laudably unsettling. Beatty is a talented writer in many ways, and his ability to make both the comic and tragic uncomfortable, just clauses apart, makes this book feel unique. It’s not flawless, but you can tell why the Man Booker judges went for this one: there’s something quite special about 300 pages of witty and compelling plotlessness.