What it is about I struggled to articulate to some of my colleagues and students as I tried to recommend it to them. You would think an English teacher wouldn’t have such a difficult time with plot summary. Fortunately, I don’t identify as an English teacher, so take that shit somewhere else. And fuck you if you think that summarizing a novel according to its plot points gets you anywhere close to “getting it.” As if the totality of your experience, which includes you wondering why you keep eating peanut butter even though all the evidence points unambiguously to an adult-onset allergy manifest as pruritis ani (aka “itchy butt”), can be reduced to “he did x then y happened.” Like if I said (hypothetically) that Lou ate natural smooth peanut butter and then couldn’t stop itching the lonely land bridge extending from beneath his genitals to his anus, does that really give you insight about what that situation is all about? Because please help me.
The Sellout magnifies my woefully narrow reading history. Trying to help one student understand its merits, I compared Paul Beatty (the book’s author) to Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguing that they both confront the same bullshit in America about race and class but use different tones. Coates is unapologetically bleak (to white people), and he’s been criticized for lacking hope. As if hope isn’t inherent in the act of writing. If he had no hope, he wouldn’t speak up. Beatty is an absurdist, and he uses satire to expose America’s evasion with its own history and enduring identity. In some ways, both writers are simply in awe of the great American performance that has been on stage for so long (it’s aiming to be the longest running tragedy in human history, I believe). Coates quickly dismisses awe in favor of active confrontation, refusing to give his readers a way out of seeing things clearly. Beatty directs his readers toward similar subjects and then uses humor to unsettle them from their current worldview. In the end, there’s no promise of a way out. Beatty uses his narrator to conclude something like this: “fuck if I know how to do anything about the truth. I’m just telling you how things are. Why don’t you do something about it?” And that’s the best closure he can offer. Beatty did his job. He testified. Now you go make sense of it. Why should he present his case and then render a verdict? You’re the self-appointed judge, after all. You decide.
Which is probably why I get so flustered when people ask me, after I tell them I read a book (or saw a movie, or travelled, or did anything really), “how was it?” I have no clue. Do you want to hear about the experience, or do you want a simple “good” or “bad” so you can move on with your life to the next trivial question? And then I end up judging you and myself because I’m too chicken-shit to judge the thing I told you about.
Anyway, this is all my “Super Deluxe Whiteness” speaking, so go read the book and then try to think of segregation (and all matters of race) like you did before.
Wait, what do you mean you hadn’t thought about segregation before?