The opening line of Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize 2016-winning novel, The Sellout (Pan Macmillan, 399), goes thus: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” It sets the tone for what’s to come — a caustic, tongue-firmly-in-cheek look at race relations in America — only, Beatty is not training his gun on any one side. The book spares neither the smug supremacy of “white” culture (“I was the ‘diversity’ the school trumpeted so loudly in its glossy literature…”) or the mistakes of Black America (“They won’t admit it, but every black person thinks they’re better than every other black person”).
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The Sellout has won Beatty, 54, the Man Booker Prize, 2016, the first American to do so since the award was instituted in 1969. The Booker, which was earlier open to only Commonwealth, Irish and Zimbabwean writers, opened its doors to all writers writing in English in 2013. It edged out more popular choices on the shortlist, including David Szalay’s All That Man Is, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.Historian Amanda Foreman, who was the chair of judges this year, called The Sellout, “a novel for our times. A tirelessly inventive modern satire, its humour disguises a radical seriousness. Paul Beatty slays sacred cows with abandon and takes aim at racial and political taboos with wit, verve and a snarl.”
Indeed, The Sellout is a book of our times, made more relevant by the increasing police atrocities against Black Americans and the bitter run-up to the Presidential elections in the US next month. That does not make reading Beatty easy, or even mainstream, in a way that Toni Morrison has become in recent years; or a “white” writer like Jonathan Franzen, is. Beatty’s works demand a certain preparedness on the part of his readers — an awareness of history and contemporary politics, the range to understand his many literary allusions (The LA suburb where Bonbon lives is called Dickens, for instance), and the self-deprecation that is essential to laugh at oneself.
Beatty, whose literary inspirations include Gertrude Stein, Toni Morrison, Joseph Conrad, Yasunari Kawabata, Kurt Vonnegut, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Philip Roth, Joni Mitchell, Elena Poniatowska, WG Sebald and Richard Pryor among others, does not eschew plot, but there are lengthy digressions that can throw his reader off-course. In The Sellout, his African-American protagonist, Bonbon, is trying to reinstate slavery and segregation in his LA suburb — but that’s only one of the many subversions at play in the book. Beatty is clear that he is not writing to a template and will not paint the novel with the broad brush of a satire or a comedy. In an interview to The Indian Express last week, he said, “I used to joke that I wrote for people who don’t read. Some jokes are true, that one was a lie, but I can only hope there are enough weirdos out there who appreciate what I do. We have a sense of what a book is supposed to be, and especially what a black book is suppose to be, and in many ways my work isn’t that. But who knows if that’ll remain the case.”