2016 Booker Prize For Fiction Winner

In the world of literature, there are subjects that have inevitably become synonymous with American literature and society as a whole. One prominent subject in contemporary works of American literature is politics. It has become ubiquitous that nearly every seminal work resonates with its elements. Among the 2021 Booker Prize shortlisted novels, Richard Powers’ Bewilderment abounded with overtones of politics. Apart from politics, another recurring theme in contemporary American literature is racism and identity. It has been thoroughly explored in literary powerhouses such as Pulitzer Prize winnings works Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell), To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee), and The Underground Railroad Railroad (Colson Whitehead). Racism has become, without a doubt, an important element of American literature, regardless of the genre or the period the stories are set in.

In 2015, poet and writer Paul Beatty rendered his own voice to the growing list of literary masterpieces exploring racism and identity with his fourth novel, The Sellout. The story commenced in the halls of the United States Supreme Court. In the present novel’s main character, an anonymous man simply referred to as either “me” or “Bonbon”, was summoned before the country’s most powerful court for the crime of keeping a slave. While standing trial before the Supreme Court, Bonbon started to reflect on the chain of events that eventually led to his present state. In a series of flashbacks, Bonbon’s story was slowly but carefully unpooled by Beatty.

Bonbon’s story all began in Dickens, a fictional town that was described as an agrarian ghetto community situated on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, California. He was raised alone by his father, an unorthodox social scientist who was the founder and the “sole practitioner of the field of Liberation Psychology”. He called their house the Skinner Box and walks around it in his laboratory coat. He was the quintessence of a mad scientist. As unorthodox as his father was Bonbon’s own childhood. He did not go to school but was homeschooled, with a curriculum that strictly conformed to the ideas of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Worse, Bonbon was his father’s proverbial lab rat; his father performed on him a score of race-centric sociological experiments that never amounted to anything scientifically or psychologically relevant. However, the mental scars of these experiments resonated all throughout Bonbon’s adulthood.

“Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he’d never heard a patient of color talk of needing “closure.” They needed revenge. They needed distance. Forgiveness and a good lawyer maybe, but never closure. He said people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, and overtipping for closure, when in reality what they’ve achieved is erasure.”

~ Paul Beatty, The Sellout

Bonbon’s father was the interim dean of the department of psychology at a local college. He was also ambitious and had exorbitant expectations of his son. It was his dream for his son to become an influential and respected leader in Dickens. Bonbon’s father, however, got killed by the Los Angeles Police District, leaving Bonbon orphaned and unsure of how to move forward with his life. After all, he grew up dependent on his father but life must still go on. Bonbon found reprieve in the routinary. He isolated himself from the rest of the community and simply carried on with his agricultural endeavors; he was cultivating artisanal watermelons and marijuana in the land he inherited from his father.

Everything started to settle down when Bonbon learned that his community was removed from the map. Dickens was, after all, a constant source of embarrassment for Los Angeles and its environs due to what Bonbon considered as “a blatant conspiracy by the surrounding, increasingly affluent two-car-garage communities to keep their property values up and blood pressures down.” Dickens was unincorporated was stricken out of California maps. Most of the town’s denizens barely noticed the change but it set off a chain of reactions in Bonbon that made him find a new purpose in life. He started mounting an effort to restore Dickens’ existence back. Enlisting the help of his friend Hominy Jenkins, a former child actor. With his accomplice, they started putting up road signs and painting boundary lines to acknowledge the existence of the town. It was futile but it never stopped Bonbon.

What ensued was a story that satirized the social concerns of contemporary America vis-a-vis race and identity. As a literary subject, racism has become ubiquitous. In his novel, Beatty took a deeper dive into the subject and added his own elements to create a work with a deeper impression and bigger impact. He refused to conform to the norms of writing and instead, he deconstructed racism in an innovative and entertaining manner. The novel’s premise reimagined a black man reinstituting segregation with a plan to bring slavery back. On the surface, the notions brought to the fore do seem absurd, implausible even.

Upon deeper reflection, it stirs the conversation towards how despite segregation and slavery ending and racism at an all-time low but their pervasive effects still resonate in the contemporary. The recent surge of the Black Lives Matter movement is a testament to this. The catalyst for the rise of the movement was echoed in the incident between Bonbon’s father and the policemen. It was a vivid depiction of how innocent black men are often racially profiled, often to fatal outcomes. Unfortunately, the reality is that it takes time, perhaps years and even decades, for societies to embrace and exhibit substantial changes. It makes it more imperative to keep on reminding society of these badly needed changes. In this facet, literature has been doing its fair share of keeping the conversation relevant and timeless.

“I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!”

~ Paul Beatty, The Sellout

For its powerful depiction of a timeless and seminal subject, The Sellout was adjudged the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Paul Beatty’s fourth novel, his Booker Prize win was a breakthrough, not only from an individual perspective but also from a historical perspective. With his Booker Prize win, he became the first American writer to win the prestigious literary award. Prior to 2014, only novels written by residents of the Commonwealth of Nations, Republic of Ireland, and Zimbabwe are eligible for the award. Beatty’s victory also earned him the distinction of being the first Booker Prize winner not from the Commonwealth, Ireland, and Zimbabwe.

Beatty gave The Sellout a distinct voice that made it stand out among its competition. Beatty’s scintillating prose wove the elements of the story together. There was a palpable power and authority, especially at the start, where he laid out the pieces of the story. He did a commendable job of incorporating African-American stereotypes into the story. There were searing commentaries on racial identity and the plight of African-Americans in contemporary America, delivered through clever narrative devices. At one entertaining stretch, Beatty ruminated on the white-washing of literature. Mark Twain’s masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn earned a new title: The Pejorative Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.

The novel was bereft of a compelling plotline but it was nevertheless riveting and convincing. There was a healthy mix of humor and bitter irony that complimented the novel’s elements of satire. The satire further flourished because of the overall angst that was prevalent throughout the story. It was anger at the injustices and the system that propelled Bonbon. His angst was mixed in with overtones of frustration, and a baleful of sarcasm and irony. However, as the story progressed, it became palpable that it was starting to lose the power and the luster that elevated the earlier parts of the story. The story did not digress but it did not pick up momentum either; the story remained stationary. Beatty did not expand on the ideas that he initially brought to the fore, choosing to linger on these ideas.

Also weighing down on the story was its tendency for repetition. As Bonbon circled around the same subjects and themes, there was a lack of direction and purpose. There was a tediousness that was characterized by personal grievances and loosely connected rants. The overall impact of the story thus becomes ephemeral. While the novel also endeavored to establish a psychological profile, Bonbon largely remained a cipher that takes a lot to unravel. He was the archetype of the classic character who pushes and pulls, one who cannot fully commit to a singular direction. Beatty did not provide a space for character development which can impair one’s appreciation of the story and its more vivid and powerful facets.

“This whole city’s a Freudian slip of the tongue, a concrete hard-on for America’s deeds and misdeeds. Slavery? Manifest Destiny? Laverne & Shirley? Standing by idly while Germany tried to kill every Jew in Europe? Why some of my best friends are the Museum of African Art, the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Women in the Arts. And furthermore, I’ll have you know, my sister’s daughter is married to an orangutan.”

~ Paul Beatty, The Sellout

After all, there is not a perfect story or novel. For all its flaws, The Sellout remains a timely and seminal story about one malady that ails our contemporary society. Paul Beatty’s fourth novel dissected racism and how it still resonates in a society that many surmises as advanced and well-developed. He added his voice into a growing conversation that tackles this subject, a subject that will remain relevant in the foreseeable future; society, after all, takes time to embrace changes. Beatty earns stripes for the creativity he used to shed a different light on this societal concern. The mix of humor, sarcasm, angst, and irony made up for an entertaining read, especially at the start. Overall, The Sellout was a good and entertaining read.

Ratings

64%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

When I dropped by the bookstore in late 2019, one of the books that piqued my curiosity was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. The first thing that stood out for me is the line “Winner of the Man Booker Prize”; this is just one of the lines that easily convinces me to buy a book. Funnily enough, I often confuse The Sellout with Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I also can’t fathom why but I somehow mistake the one for the other. Anyway, I made The Sellout part of my 2021 reading journey, a primer to what would unfold as a Booker Prize reading journey early in the year. I liked the premise of the story. However, I had a challenge trying to decipher who Bonbon was. He barely made sense to me, as did most of the characters. The prevalence of strong stereotypes was also a downvote for me. I understand that the novel is a satire but it was built on repetitions of images and scenes. While I am cognizant of the relevance of the novel’s message, I was not as engaged as I expected to be.

Book Specs

Author: Paul Beatty
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Publishing Date: 2017
Number of Pages: 289
Genre: Satirical Fiction

Synopsis

Born in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens on the outskirts of LA, the narrator of The Sellout is brought up to believe his father’s racially charged psychological studies will lead to a memoir that will solve their financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, all that’s left is the bill for a drive-through funeral. Fueled by this deceit, the narrator sets out to right another wrong. Dickens has literally been wiped off the map to save LA from embarrassment, so he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregation, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

About the Author

Paul Beatty was born on June 9, 1962, in Los Angeles, California, USA. In 1980, he graduated from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Brooklyn College. He also obtained a Master of Arts degree in Psychology from Boston University.

Prior to taking on prose, Beatty was a successful poet. In 1990, he was the first Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. His victory earned him a deal to publish his first poetry collection, Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991). He followed it up with another poetry collection, Joker, Joker, Deuce, published in 1994. In 1993, he was awarded a Grants to Artist Award by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Beatty published his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, in 1996. It was warmly received by literary pundits, along with his succeeding novels, Tuff (2000), and Slumberland (2008). The latter was awarded the 2009 Creative Capital Award. His breakthrough came in 2015, with the publication of his fourth novel, The Sellout. It won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the 2016 Booker Prize for Fiction. His Booker Prize victory earned him the distinction as the first American writer to win the prestigious literary award. The novel was also longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award. Beatty was also the editor of the Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor (2006).

Beatty currently resides in New York City.