As you probably know, The Sellout won the Man Booker Prize last year – arguably the world’s most prestigious literary prize, especially now that American authors are included in the contest. So, with trepidation, I’m about to reveal my opinion of the 2016 recipient – I actually didn’t enjoy the book. There. I’ve said it. It started off well, and had me hooked initially, but I lost interest after about 70 pages. I’ll get to the reasons why, but first, let me recap.
This novel is set in the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, in a suburb called Dickens. Due to the increasing property prices of neighbouring suburbs, the “embarrassing" black enclave of Dickens is literally wiped off the map. The story’s black narrator is determined to put Dickens back on the map, and so embarks on an outrageous plot to reinstate slavery and segregate the high school. This act lands him in the Supreme Court, which is where the novel begins and ends.
Firstly, as a disclaimer, The Sellout is a satirical work, and it’s a challenge to appreciate, and review, satire when you’re not deeply familiar with the subject matter. Unfortunately, I’m no expert in US history, but my schoolgirl knowledge of Rosa Parks and the Black Civil Rights Movement did count for something. I’m sure Americans would take so much more from this book, with the many layers of cultural and historical references. There’s no doubt that Paul Beatty is fiercely intelligent, with a vast vocabulary and a deep knowledge of history. As The Guardian famously quoted, “The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get”; and I don’t doubt that fact. Actually, I started by googling unknown words and references, but this soon became onerous, and stopped the flow of my reading, so I gave up.
Quite honestly, I found the book really exhausting to read. The sentences were long and packed with adjectives; and the novel contained more similes than I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s an example: “When night falls, I mean really falls, the temperature drops twenty degrees and a total amniotic blackness blankets and comforts you like a lover making the bed while you’re still in it, and that brief moment between television sets popping off and back on is the calm before the after-hours strip clubs in Inglewood open, before the cacophony of New Year’s Eve gunshots ring out, before Santa Monica, Hollywood, Whittier, and Crenshaw Boulevards come slowly cruising to life, is when Angelenos take time to pause and reflect”. Phew. As I said, exhausting to read, sentence after sentence. And not exactly the holiday read I was after.
To add to my woes, there was a lot of swearing in the book, and I must confess that I don’t enjoy this type of abrasive language – I like to read so that I can appreciate beautiful writing. I quickly tired of phrases like “What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? Get the fuck out!”. But a wise friend has recently cautioned against becoming one of the ‘tone police’; instead, to evaluate the message and not the tone – so I’ve taken that on board.
Plus, I didn’t feel any real connection with any of the characters. Perhaps this is because I’m not a black American male – but having said that, there are plenty of books I’ve read where I’ve felt a genuine connection with a male character, or a character of another nationality.
And now, for my deepest, darkest confession, which I was tempted to keep a secret: I actually skipped about 50 pages in the third quarter of the book. I have never done that before, as I always feel obligated to read the entire book from start to finish. But I met an author recently, and she believes people shouldn’t feel pressured to continue reading a book they’re not enjoying. So, I now agree: the world is full of wonderful books, and I forever have a ‘to-read’ list; so from now on, if a book hasn’t grabbed me after 100 pages, that’s it. Move on. Life’s too short.
To conclude, I know literature is highly subjective – which is one reason why I love Book Club so much – so if you’re interested in The Sellout, then by all means, don’t let me put you off…go ahead and read it. And do let me know your verdict.
Reviewed by Carmen (and seconded by Helen!)