Friday 3 November 2017

Paul Beatty: The Sell Out (2015)

Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
Review number: 1510

The Sell Out is a novel which divides opinion. If you look at online reviews, ones which give it very high ratings are common, but so are ones which give it very low ratings. The style and the content of Beatty's novel are responsible for both these extreme reactions, and I can really understand why people think of it in both ways.

I started out as a fan. The first part of the book is a tour de force of satirical humour: this is I think the only Booker Prize winner I have ever laughed out loud when reading. Basically the book starts with the ending. The narrator ends up before the US Supreme Court, basically for actions which call the comfortable assumption of white people that there is no longer any racial divide in the United States, which is the first chapter, with the rest of the book leading up to this appearance. The early parts of the book are an extended, vitriolic, riff on what it means to be black in twenty-first century America, full of references both literary and otherwise, and also full of language which may well shock.  It's kind of like the illegitimate child of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth. Strong stuff, and although I was enjoying it, I didn't want to read more than a few pages at a time.

As the book goes on, the tone settles down somewhat, and this is actually a problem. The actually story is less interesting than the set pieces and jokes - things like a parody of The Charge of the Light Brigade, or a stand-up comedian making jokes in the format of academic reports on psychological experiments. Without the energy present at the start, The Sell Out reading experience becomes an impatient wait for the next extended joke.

If you don't get many of the references (and I'm sure I missed some, not being into gangsta rap), the jokes won't be as funny. If the language offends, you will find The Sell Out unreadable. It made a difference to me that the book was written by a black writer; I think I would have been offended if it had been written by anyone else. The first part is really love or hate; the second half is so much less successful that it was just mainly average. Overall, my rating for the book is 7/10.