All form, not much content
Max Grierson reviews: Paul Beatty, 'The sellout', Oneworld Publications, 2016, pp289, £12.99
Let us hope that the Man-Booker judges were not being condescending when they awarded the 2016 prize to Paul Beatty’s The sellout. He would not be pleased if that were the case. Still I am not sure that he was a worthy winner - perhaps it was another bad year for writing?
As a black writer, Beatty adopted a high-risk strategy when he decided to critique his own kith and kin by means of a ‘Swiftian’ satire, albeit leavened by crude humour (the opposite of political correctness). If you are going to shock your readers, you have to have a clear perspective as well; otherwise the latter will end up being confused and frustrated. That is my reaction anyway.
Beatty scatters ideas, mostly taken from a broad spectrum of popular culture, like a radio DJ on speed, the only constant being his frequent use of the f-word and the n-word. He also enjoys doing the intellectual dumbing down thing: “If Stevie had a Latin motto, it’d be Cogito, ergo Boogieum. I think, therefore I jam” (p183).
But underneath this ribaldry and the preposterous scenes which he has created, he does manage to raise some serious questions: for instance, how should Afro-Americans define their identity today? The meaning of the latter, of course, is based on a constant struggle for equality and respect against endemic racism and the rule of capital, irrespective of the election of Obama as America’s first black president. Should black people react to day-to-day racism and poverty by taking the separatist route? Or should they accept reality - that this is impossible - and try to achieve the same goal via integration? But by what means? The new gospel of political correctness (which dovetails perfectly with the neoliberal agenda)? The trouble with both options, of course, is that they would do little to change the situation in the ghetto (or the hood). They would probably make it worse. Given his privileged, middle class background, and the fact that this is America, Beatty cannot be expected to come up with a socialist solution. But he is in good company here: Bernie Sanders did not do so either!
The plethora of populist images in The sellout are part of the culture industry. They have seeped into the psyche of his black characters after years of watching TV, etc: eg, Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop, Superman, Popeye - even if they are mixed in with black culture too, as with hip-hop movies from the 70s (the fact that they are driven by the corporate mass media is neither here nor there). As a result, his characters appear to confirm Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’: concretely news/propaganda, advertising and the entertainment industry, which “serves as total justification for the aims and conditions of the … system”. Along with the internet, it “governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself.”1
Another problem for Beatty is that he is writing in the age of neoliberalism (Trump or no Trump); therefore the old strategies which he lampoons no longer apply. After having flirted with Keynesianism, the bourgeoisie now prefers to rely on global capital to lower the living standards of the masses (free movement of capital, privatisation, etc) and thereby increase profits. Meanwhile, given their predilection for mass culture, the populace is easily seduced by a ‘new’ ideology called identity politics. Today emancipation no longer rests on the ideals of ‘Liberty, equality and fraternity’, but on ‘freedom, equality and diversity’! As a result the masses are more atomised than ever. Thus bourgeois society becomes more and more unequal. Last, but not least, neoliberalism, of course, works through the “society of the spectacle”.
By focusing on form - an attempted Swiftian satire no less (slave mentality, segregation in reverse: like telling the poor to sell their babies as a food delicacy for the rich) - Beatty makes light of existing reality. Therefore he is in danger of losing the plot. In addition to an overuse of crude humour, he adds a liberal dose of cynicism. This is how he describes the current situation in his prologue:
I stared in awe at the Lincoln Memorial. If honest Abe had come to life … what would he say? What would he do? Would he break-dance? Would he pitch pennies by the kerbside? Would he read the paper and see if the union he saved is now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap and predatory lending, and that today his skill set would be better suited to the basketball court than the White House? (p4).
Somehow he should have found a way to bring to bring to life the reality of life for millions of Afro-Americans today. It is so bad that now many are less optimistic about the future than their forebears were 50 years ago:
... 42% of black children are educated in high-poverty schools [the highest of all ethnic minority groups] ...
the unemployment rate for black high school dropouts is 47%.. By comparison, the unemployment rate for white high school dropouts is 26% ... 78% of black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant ... Black mothers are more than twice as likely as white mothers to experience the death of a baby within the first 28 days of life ... 37% of people who are homeless are black ... one in every 13 African-American voters of voting age is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, a rate more than four times greater than the rate for the rest of the US population ...2
Badge of honour
‘Sellout’ - real name Bonbon - is a mixed-up, educated, young black man. He sees the n-word as a badge of honour. He is proud to befriend Hominy, leader of the Little Rascals, a hip-hop group from the 70s - to such an extent that he indulges the old man’s plea to be his personal slave:
Been this way ever since we first set foot in this country. Someone’s getting whipped or stopped and frisked, whether or not anyone done anything wrong ...
I awoke to Hominy standing in my front yard, shirtless and lashed to the curb side mailbox, demanding that I whip him. I do not know who tied his hands, but I do know that Hominy had tied mine. ‘Massa’ …. Beat me within an inch of my worthless black life (pp77-78).
The whipping episode will later land Bonbon in serious trouble. Meanwhile he arranges for Hominy to ride a public bus, bedecked with stickers which say, “Seats for whites only”, as a birthday treat! On the other hand, Bonbon wants to segregate the city of Dickens, where he grew up (which is threatened with white gentrification) from the rest of Los Angeles county; after which he plans to re-introduce segregation in reverse - ‘No whites allowed’ - back into the public school system. Black grades will improve as a result, he claims. He and his followers are also worried about the influx of “too many Mexicans”.
Bonbon describes the pleasure to be had when he and Hominy erect the sign which is intended to cut Dickens off from the rest of LA:
Hominy and I sat in the breakdown lane appreciating what we had done. The sign was a dead ringer for any of the ‘traffic control devices’ one sees during the daily commute. It had taken only a few hours, but I felt like Michelangelo staring at the Sistine Chapel after four years of hard labour, like Banksy after spending six days searching the internet for ideas to steal and three minutes of sidewalk vandalism to execute them.
“Massa, signs are powerful things. It almost feels like Dickens exists out there in the smog somewhere.”
“Hominy, what feels better, getting whipped or looking at the sign?”
Hominy thought for a moment. “The whip feels good, but the sign feels good in the heart” (p88).
Marpessa is Bonbon’s lost love. She is a bus driver. This is where Beatty belatedly recognises that the working class exists; that it is also able to organise in a non-segregated way, in order to defend the interests of everyone (but not without health and safety issues):
Her average workday was filled with fights, purse-snatchings, fare beaters, molestations, public intoxication, child endangerment, pandering, niggers constantly standing on the wrong side of the yellow line while the bus was in motion, and kicking games, to say nothing of the occasional attempted murder. Her union rep said a bus driver in this country is assaulted once every three days … (pp119-20).
On the other hand, she takes a regressive step, allowing her No125 bus to provide Hominy with a perverse birthday present:
The wintry day in the segregated state of Alabama, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, she became known as the “mother of the modern-day civil rights movement”. Decades later on, a seasonally indeterminate afternoon in a supposedly unsegregated section of Los Angeles, California, Hominy Jenkins couldn’t wait to give up his seat to a white person …
“Did you get anything good for your birthday?” [asks one of the passengers].
Hominy pointed to the … signs that lined the front third of the bus: “Priority seating for seniors and disabled, and whites” …
“That’s my birthday present” (pp126-27).
At the same time, Marpessa tells Bonbon what she thinks of him:
You’re a sick fuck, and those goddam signs you made have fucking set black people back 500 years….It’s the goddam 21st century, people died so I could get this job, and I let your sick ass talk me into driving a segregated bus (p130).
Only she has an inkling of the way forward. But why did she agree to do this?
But Bonbon does not have it all his own way. He is up against a group called the Dum Dum Donut intellectuals (named after a local restaurant where they meet). For them, Bonbon is a sellout, because he is happy with the n-word and believes that black separatism is the way forward, combined with segregation in reverse. Their leader, Foy Cheshire, wants to defend the status quo, as well as banning the n-word and writing cleaned up versions of the classics, starting with Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer now becomes Tom Soarer).
Foy Cheshire’s faith in the integrationist dream - by means of gradualism - is not much better than Bonbon’s direct action; albeit in order to promote his reactionary ideas. This is his answer to the risible argument that blacks were better off under slavery (!):
in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish and rampant disease will be worth it, because some day my great, great, great, great grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is (p219).
Beatty’s satire here is spot on. But then he spoils his good work with pages and pages of scatterbrain, populist images - as I said, like a DJ on speed. Eventually, however, the story reaches its climax after Bonbon coopts a local principal to introduce his reverse segregation policy to her school (‘No whites allowed’) “Resegregation,” as Bonbon puts it, “was kinda fun” (p224). Why is he such an idiot, one might ask? More cynicism is the answer. Liberals like Foy were
directly responsible for getting a black man elected president and nothing changed … last week a nigger won $75,000 on Teen Jeopardy and nothing changed … in fact things have gotten worse. [We’ve even got] white boys working in the car wash (p260).
Beatty now resorts to a mockumentary-style re-enactment of the drama at Little Rock High School, Alabama back in the 50s. But instead of five black students, now it is white students who have to be bussed into Dickens under police protection, in order to desegregate the offending school, whose policy is ‘No whites allowed’! Foy and his Dum Dum Donut intellectuals organise a public protest in support of the police, singing ‘We shall overcome’. He also has a paint-ball gun, filled with white paint to spray on Bonbon and his supporters. Then he shoots him with a real gun, but not fatally. While he is being treated by medics, Hominy blurts out that Bonbon is his “massa”. So the police charge him with “involuntary servitude”, which Bonbon vigorously opposes. To make a long story short, he takes it all the way to the Supreme Court (the citadel of “constitutional pornography”). The whole country watches “me versus the United States of America” on TV, etc.
The case boils down to a discussion of ‘What is blackness?’ Bonbon’s attorney introduces a stages theory of black identity, which is as much obscurantist as it is postmodern:
1. He/she wants to be anything but black: eg, Michael Jordan’s shilling for Nike; Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice lying through their teeth about Saddam’s WMD.
2. “Heightened awareness of race”, “blackness personified”, “whiteness reviled”, “black supremacy” (p275).
3. Blackness means “race transcendentalism”, a “collective consciousness that fights oppression and seeks serenity” (p276). The examples of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Sitting Bull are given. (“Fuck it, I’m out!,” says Bonbon.)
4. “Unmitigated blackness” (p277): eg, Abbey Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Charlie Parker and Bjork. (NB: recently a white American woman ‘self-identified’ as ‘black’. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Bonbon!)
Bonbon retires to smoke some good weed. I will leave it there, but suffice to say that on the very last page of the book, entitled ‘Closure’, Beatty offers a glimmer of understanding, that disintegration and regression cannot possibly offer a way forward:
I remember the day after the black dude was inaugurated, Foy Cheshire proud as punch, driving around town in his coupe, honking his horn and waving his American flag ...
“Why are you waving the flag?” I ask him. “Why now? I’ve never seen you wave it before.”
He said that he felt like the country, the United States of America, had finally paid off its debts.
“And what about the native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking Californian condor? When do they collect?” I asked him (p289).
Beatty must be delighted that the critics have compared his novel to Swift’s Modest proposal. But I think this has more to do with media hype (just look at the blurb on the outside and inside pages - talk about hard sell!). For me, Thesellout is all form and not much content. On the one hand, his ‘biting’ satire is diluted by an endless stream of crude humour, much of it gratuitous, as well as mixing consumerist culture with high culture - so postmodern!
On the other, it glosses over the reality of what it must be like to be black and poor in the United States today.
1. G Debord The society of the spectacle Cambridge MA 1995, p13.