Friday, February 03, 2017

Guest post: Reading group: The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

A horrible cold prevented me from attending the meeting to discuss this recent Booker-winning novel. It features a narrator who, having spent his childhood in the 'Agrarian black ghetto' of Dickens as the subject of his sociologist single father's psychological-racial studies, decides to put Dickens back on the map by reintroducing slavery and segregation in a hugely ironic challenge to contemporary assumptions of racial diversity. Tackling such an urgent subject, and told in a wisecracking, immensely erudite and intelligent prose, the book fully justifies its Booker win. I didn't however find it an easy ride/read, and the following report of the discussion written by John shows that others in our group felt the same. I am grateful to John for stepping in:


Mark chose The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, and gave a brief account of his view of it. He said he thought the book was “absolutely terrific”, particularly mentioning the author’s grasp of popular culture. Mark clearly regards it as an important book and in his opinion it was on occasion “laugh out loud”. Trevor agreed and said the book is extremely clever. (Readers may be interested to contrast The Outsider (or The Stranger) by Camus; a sharp contrast on the theme of racism, and which now seems a far more traditional approach; see our discussion of it.)

There was some disagreement about how funny this book is; though a number of people picked out one or two funny passages. Clare said she “didn’t get it”, presumably in reference to whether it was funny or not, and I agreed. I mentioned the group’s response to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: Doug had tried many times to introduce Pynchon to the group and finally succeeded with that one. He found The Crying hilariously funny but (most of?) the rest of the group had no idea what he was talking about. I put forward the opinion that humour is a very personal thing.

There was general agreement that this is an important book, and deserving of the Booker prize. This was because it tackled head-on the difficult topic of the idea that what is usually known as the human race (allowing reproduction between members of that race) is in fact a group of races, “whites”, “Negroes”… Our discussion took place before the current developments in America underlining the book's message, and there was a variety of strength of feeling among us about the extent of racism in our current society, the strongest being expressed by the member of the group who is what is sometimes referred to as “mixed race”, and the member who had made an academic study of post-colonial literature. After some discussion, when asked directly, the mixed race member of the group stated that he had been racially abused as a boy, in particular on one occasion being attacked by three youths, presumably of about the same age. It was clear that the attack was racist due to the vocabulary the youths used. Some people expressed surprise, presumably because in their view this member of the group is apparently fully integrated into British society, and in most circumstances (at least locally) “passes as white”. He was in a non-heavy sort of way (I think) raised as a Christian. I said that I felt it was clear that the group could openly discuss the issues raised in his presence within the security of the group but that some groups of people would either be too embarrassed to do this, or there would be conflict on some of the issues. I expressed the view that it is important that if society is to progress issues such as this, relationships between the sexes, sexual abuse and paedophilia must be openly discussed. (However, I have noted in meetings with other groups that care is needed: I have had a little contact with witchcraft scares in Nottingham, which were eventually shown not to have any foundation in reality.)

There was fairly general agreement that the book is not an easy read. At least two of the five people present had not managed to complete it in the allotted month, though to some extent this was because some were very committed to family over Christmas, and also illness. There was fairly general agreement that the style of the book was dense and intense, with a style perhaps more usual to short stories. There was an agreement that Beatty is clearly a very clever guy. Jenny said that about two-thirds of the way through she began to feel the book was getting tiresome and she had to force herself to go on. I agreed it was “hard work” but went on to say that this was about the point when the book benefitted from the use of a more traditional story line. I also compared it to Ulysses, saying it was similar in the use of digressions, and also in subject matter as the protagonist of Ulysses is a Jew in Ireland, and to some extent an outsider to the society he lived in.*

Doug was unable to attend the group and briefly summarized his opinion (as he has usefully done a number of times before), stating:

“I’ve not quite finished the book but I haven't enjoyed it as much as thought I was going to after the opening few pages. I've found the heavy dialect of the main protagonist made it hard to get into the rhythm of the book and the cultural references had me resorting to Google on a regular basis. So I just found it quite hard going - far more so than, say, A Brief History of 7 Killings, which had its own challenges in the language.
But it was wildly funny in places and definitely worth the read.”

I and (at least?) one other member of the group expressed surprised as we had felt Doug would like the book, with what (to me at least) is a similar use of throw-away, rather jocular humour to the Pynchon. I said I felt that at times Beatty’s digressions served little more purpose than to introduce a joke that did not strike me as being particularly funny.

The discussion of the book concluded, but as often happens in the group, much discussion of the issues raised continued for a couple of hours. Again it can be concluded that whether one actually likes the book or not, the issues are important. One member agreed that the book contained some fabulous writing. Famously, she likes food, and compared reading the book to tackling a rich box of chocolates, with initial enjoyment, leading to eventual satiation. Perhaps the lesson learned is that this book should be taken in small doses. Certainly it is advisable to allot more time to this book than would usually be the case with a book of this length, about 250 pages.

Report written by John.

*Ed (EB): There is a reference to Joyce's Ulysses at one point in the book, which I took as a self-conscious acknowledgement and tribute.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

No comments: