"But history isn't the paper its printed on. It's memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the things that stay with you"
One of the benefits of reorganising that towering stack of books beside your bed is to rediscover that 'must-read' novel that you just haven't found the time to dive into. That's exactly why, last week, I ended up promoting The Sellout to the very top of the stack.
I first picked up a copy of Paul Beatty's novel just when it was announced as winner of the Man Booker Prize earlier last year. I remember being surprised that this American satire actually won the award (I was a huge fan of David Szalay's All That Man Is) and reading reviews afterwards it was clearly a divisive work but a number of friends convinced me it was worth a read.
The Sellout is not an easy going novel and there are a number of elements that are potentially off putting when you first dive in. Firstly the prose is pretty stream of consciousness style which means long passages of rambling and ranting with little in the way of a break. This is fine if you're following but, and here comes the second problem, much of the story hinges on the reader having a good knowledge of US politics and history as well as a healthy awareness of LA's idiosyncrasies. I'm not expert in any of this and I'm pretty sure that much of the novel's nuance was a little lost for me. That said, I'm much better for taking the leap of faith to just let Paul Beatty's prose settle and find its own meaning in my head; "Exemplars of how self-hatred can compel one to value mainstream acceptance over self-respect and morality".
The novel follows the narrator, known only as 'Me', and his attempt following the death of his father to reinstate the area in which he grew up on to the map of LA. The small town of Dickens was initially swallowed up by urban sprawl before completely disappearing from the city map. Paul Beatty uses Me's one man crusade to satirise post-racial era America; first in a newly segregated school and later when he picks up a slave.
Me's endeavour ultimately leads him to the Supreme Court which brilliantly provides Beatty with an opportunity to hold a mirror up to US society. This is powerful, no holds barred writing which is deeply shocking in parts. Beatty's bravery and willingness to tackle such raw issues through satire is clever, possibly too clever for some which is precisely why this novel has proven to be so divisive. For me, this is a novel I won't forget reading. I'm now working on a rotation system to ensure books like this don't languish at the bottom of my reading stack again.
I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty published by OneWorld, 306 pages.
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