Kaleidoscope Eyes

A review of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout 

by Kate Wilson

What has the Lennon-McCartney song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds got to do with Paul Beatty's 2016 Man Booker Prize-winning novel1? Well, for a start, they are both introduced by a drug-fazed narrator/protagonist; in the case of Beatty, it's Me, an honest black citizen who, apparently on charge for some heinous crime, is sitting in the Supreme Court of the United States smoking pot under cover of an air-freshener - brand-name Tropic Breeze - and getting high in the highest court in the land. Already, we're in the kind of crazy-upside-down world readers of Lewis Carroll will recognize, (LC being the inspiration the Beatles claimed for their surrealist lyrics), which connects with the tricksy habit Beatty's novel has of challenging your most cherished assumptions about almost everything you may care to think of. For this reason, the ride with Beatty is often bewildering and disorientating. He has your head fairly buzzing with alien ideas and you're as soon back down a rabbit hole with Alice as anywhere else (I choose my own cultural allusion). If you've ever fallen down a rabbit hole, as I did once up to my knee, you'll know how rapidly the sky can reel and the land come up to meet you. But enough of Carroll, I'm just trying to tell you what it felt like reading The Sellout. More importantly, for me, it's the metaphor of those kaleidoscope eyes in the Beatles song, which goes right to the core of what I think Beatty is about in this exhausting, puzzling and educative novel.

If you played with a kaleidoscope as a child, you should still be able to remember the sharp little flakes at the bottom as you look into it, made up of small splintering colours that catch the light. It's not really the colours that matter to you, but the patterns you are waiting for, those wonderful new symmetries that display themselves after a good shake and a turn of the lens. That's how Beatty's novel works: he shows us a fragmented community and exposes how alienated from itself and the good life it has become. And then he picks up the broken pieces, re-arranging them into new patterns, which come together almost like a revelation – because this is not just social criticism, but his own form of black activism. The community from which Me comes, is called Dickens (based on the real- life suburb of Compton in Los Angeles) which Beatty offers as a simple case of standard black inner-city absurdity.2

Absurdity is the watchword here: Dickens is the last bastion of blackness3 which sticks to its race pride and dysfunctional ways of living, even though things are falling apart. The people themselves are complacent: the thinking centre of the community, the rightly-called Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals prefer to talk in platitudes about the dissolution of the black family, the need for black business and things of that nature4. We see the signs of Dickens' slow disaggregation under the encroaching pressures of a white America that also doesn't care. These signs are paraded in fractured images before our eyes, some of which are horrific, when, for example Me looks down on his dead father shot by police for nothing much: I recognized him by his fist, cocked and knuckled up tight, the veins on the back of his hand still bulging and full5. Then there are the frictions and dysfunctions – a baby swung from a window by its bullying gang-member father - you don't stop f***ing around man, you gonna get that baby kilt6 , a snatched bit of a conversation between would-be muggers s'up cuz?, the cobbled together cultural and gender identities of a notorious gangbanger known as King (pronounced Kang) Kuz , with tufts of perm-straightened hair fastened to hot pink rollers stuffed underneath a see-through shower cap7. Beatty's endemic humour absorbs the worst of every surprise and shock, so you can look at least sideways rather than not at all.

The pivotal event, quite a trivial one, which turns the whole direction of the novel, comes early on in the story:

One clear South Central morning, we awoke to find that the signs that said WELCOME TO THE CITY OF DICKENS were gone. There was never an official announcement, an article in the paper, or a feature on the evening news. No one cared.8

Me, as it transpires, does care. He's convinced that the boundaries of Dickens should clearly mark it out from the rest of the world, giving it an identity to live up to. As the neighbourhood's unofficial welfare officer cum crisis negotiator or Nigger Whisperer, Me is well placed to observe what makes his community tick and, the words of Carter Woodson ringing in his ears, he alone seems to understand how close its spirit is to being erased from the face of the earth:

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile traditions, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world and it stands in danger of being exterminated." (The Founder of Black History Month9, Carter G. Woodson)

There then follows a three page-long riff on the drawing of the Dickens border with white paint and a line-marking machine, which would do justice to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

People flock to it, make their own art on it, sign it, extend it in their own colours. It becomes a community project, a sign of solidarity, but in official eyes, it is also the re-ghetto-ization of a black community. Now there is no holding Me back. He twins the town with three others, who have no existence – a movie card-board mock-up of Thebes, Doellerheim, a vapourized village in Austria, erstwhile birthplace of Hitler's grandfather on his mutter's side and last but not least, The Lost City of White Male Privilege, real or imagined10. The satire is so concentrated it becomes viscous. Not for nothing are your eyes glued to the page.

Then Me takes further unprecedented measures, managing to persuade the community to reinstate segregation on the buses and in schools. This he achieves by putting up fake signs dividing the white and black seats on his girl-friend's bus and fake hoarding announcing the building of Wheaton Academy, a new dream school for whites. These are popular moves. Peoples' manners improve on the local transport, school grades go up. Me understands the colored person's desire for the domineering white presence. For after all, apartheid united black South Africa, why couldn't it do the same for Dickens?11 The final violation of the United States Civil Rights Acts of 1866-1963, plus the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, comes with Me's reinstatement of slavery. Never mind, if it's only his friend Hominy, who has begged to be his slave, this little vulnerable, ageing erstwhile celebrity child actor with no place else to go. Hominy has sexual preferences which require a dominatrix, for whose services Me pays. That is how come Hominy has stripes on his back. The stigmata of the slave. It's these hallowed symbols of black oppression which get Me finally arrested, but only after revenge is taken upon him by his nemesis, semi-famous ex-celebrity Foy Cheshire, who accuses him of the greatest sin, that of being a sellout, one who defiles and betrays his race by going over to the other side: only the forces of evil would stick an all-white school in the middle of a ghetto12.

There's no end to the misunderstanding, until the rightness of Me's seemingly contrary and irrational acts exposes a near Catch-22 absurdity at the heart of our insistence on equality.

To find out what happens to Me at the hands of Foy and the resolution of the Supreme Court, you will have to read the book, if you've not already done so. It's thought-provoking, sharply imagined and the ideas mostly work. But if you are not black and living in America, you will sweat to understand the cultural references and follow the black urban slang. Sometimes, too, you feel you are less in a story, rooting for the characters, and more just ploughing through a polemical essay in fiction, with any idea of dramatic unity thrown to the winds. Nevertheless, Beatty's is a break-through voice which cuts through the book's background media, film and TV babble. A mixture of street talk and mock university speak, along with the influences of poetry13 and black stand-up comedy14, his writing straddles diverse cultures, from where his own work draws its energy and intelligence. In the rhythms of his prose you hear a version of Vonnegut – it be like that sometimes15 (an echo of and so it goes) but also the voices of determined, sassy black women who can drive a bus and read Kafka at the wheel. That Western culture isn't just the exclusive locus of white power is a repeated message. So the absurdities of the plot reference Joseph Heller, one of Beatty's heroes. There might be a grown-up Holden Caulfield somewhere there too, f***d up by his parents, looking to be loved and still with a chip on his shoulder -talk about starting life off with a handicap. Fuck being black. Certainly by the end of the book you will have learned to listen much harder to narratives that you are not used to hearing, and for which, perhaps even Beatty himself can't yet find an ending.

I never know what anything means , he said in a recent interview16 , I know what something feels like and I can joke about it even though I can't name it. We gotta talk a little differently somehow. I'm not sure it's possible.

Beatty might not welcome the labels post-racial, new Negro, post-soul, because he doesn't like to be categorized17. Me's Dad, however, proudly calls his son a Renaissance Negro. Reaching beyond the text is the hope of a renewed society where it may be possible to be a little less white, a little less black, without forgetting who you are. We might not quite understand how to do it yet, or how the pieces of that vision might fit together, but with a shake-up and a new turn of the lens, it might just be done.

1 Paul Beatty is the first American to win the Man Booker.

2 p.15. For those interested, all page numbers refer to the 2016 reprint of the hard back edition of The Sellout, Oneworld Publications, Bloomsbury Street, London, England.

3 p.150

4 p.100

5 p.42

6 p.61

7 p.100ff

8 p.58

9 Black History Month is celebrated every year in February in the US and in October in the UK, with a series of countrywide events and lectures

10 p.150

11 p.167

12 p.196

13 Beatty is the author of two poetry collections, Big Bank Take Little Bank (Nuyorican Poets Cafe Press, 1991) and Joker, Joker, Deuce (Penguin, 1994), along with three other novels, The White Boy Shuffle (Picador, 1996), Tuff (Anchor, 2001), and Slumberland (Bloomsbury 2009)

14 Richard Pryor (1940-2005), an American stand-up comedian, actor and social critic, was the first 'poet ' Beatty mentioned being aware of as a youngster. (cf Sheldonian interview footnote16 below). Pryor was known for uncompromising examinations of racism and topical contemporary issues, which employed colourful vulgarities and profanity, as well as racial epithets. He reached a broad audience with his trenchant observations and storytelling style and is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time."Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it “ Bill Cosby ( Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Pryor)

15 p.196

16 With Frederic Sylvanise, in Transatlantica, (Revue d'etudes americaines), July 17, 2013 https://transatlantica.revues.org/6709

17 Satire – what's that? I don't want to change the world. Beatty's words in an interview re The Sellout on 16 December, 2016, in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, England


Carter Godwin Woodson (December 19, 1875 – April 3, 1950) was an African-American historian, author, journalist and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

From wikipedia.