The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
The announcement of the BSFA nominees this week (see this post) sparked off another change in how I approach award shortlists.
I was intending on reading Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, but after noting a lukewarm review of the novel online I decided for the first time, in a very long time, to read a Kindle sample. It was enough to read the first five pages to know that while I’m sure I’d finish the book I wouldn’t much enjoy the experience. Consequently, I’m not reading Glorious Angels. The completist in me is urging I reconsider this decision – how the fuck can you judge a set of nominees if you haven’t read all the books!? – but my sanity is cheering on this new development.
I am now curious to see how many genre award lists I read in full. So far it’s zero.
I never watched Dave Chappelles’ TV show when it was on in the early noughts but I am aware of one of his most famous sketches – “Clayton Bigsby: The Black White Supremacist.” If you haven’t seen the sketch you should track it down on YouTube, but essentially it’s a ten minute mockumentary of the most famous racist in America – leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Clayton Bigsby. The joke is that Clayton, who is blind, isn’t aware he’s African American. And because he’s wearing the famous KKK glory suit, including pointy hood, the members aren’t aware that he’s black either. I think the sketch is hilarious. I like how it satirises both identity politics and the deep-seated racism that lies at the heart of America. And I also understand why it provoked a huge deal of controversy.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout plays in a similar space as the Chappelle sketch. While it will never attract a similar level of controversy, like Chappelle Beatty employs shock value to make his point about the state of race in America at the moment. Specifically, Bonbon Me, the protagonist of the novel, finds himself standing before the Supreme Court because not only does he own a slave – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – but he’s also started the process of segregating his town and the local high school from white people. These actions are partly spurred on by the Californian Government’s decision to rezone Bonbon’s hometown, Dickens, out of existence but mostly it’s the result of the lasting impact left by Bonbon’s father, a pioneering sociologist, who would make his son the subject of his “racially charged psychological studies” (a neat phrase I stole from the blurb).
As I see it, Beatty’s aim isn’t to spark a discussion about capital R race in America. Sure, he wants people to read the novel and even chat about it at the local book club, but if Sellout has one key message it’s that all this discussion about race has done very little to bridge the divide between white people and people of colour. This is epitomized by Foy Cheshire, a once TV celebratory and wannabe academic, who holds court at the local Donut Emporium to talk about race and the evils of the white man. Bonbon detests Chesire partly because he’s a poseur but mostly because Chesire stole Bonbon’s father’s idea for an animated series, the source of Chesire’s fortune. The running gag throughout the novel is Cheshire’s project to take classic American novels like Huckleberry Finn and edit them to remove the “n word” and reframe the black characters as heroes. In Bonbon, and I’m going to guess Beatty’s, mind Chesire’s way of discussing race is to edit and censor the past, a revisionist history that’s more palatable and less offensive to African Americans. But it’s this attitude, at least according to Bonbon, that stifles true and meaningful discussion about capital R race in America. As Bonbon says, “That’s the difference between most oppressed peoples of the world and American blacks. They vow never to forget, and we want everything expunged from our record, sealed and filed away for eternity.”
If the novel has a drawback it’s the lack of an actual plot. As funny as some of the set pieces are – whether it’s relabeling a bus that requests black people give up their seat for white passengers, or the advertising of a fake whites only Academy that spurs the local black school to do better – the novel does meander at times. And yet, the satire – biting as all heck – and Bonbon’s insightful, intense but hilarious rants are worth the admission price. This is not an easy book to read – it took me five days to knock off 300 or so pages – but that’s because like the best of Dave Chappelle it questions and challenges the readers personal prejudices and assumptions about culture, about identity, about race.
I’m discussing Adam Nevill’s The House of Small Shadows on the next episode of The Writer and The Critic (we’re recording on the weekend). Again the number of stars I gave the book on Goodreads provides a spoiler to how I felt about the novel. I think it’s going to be a lively discussion. There might be more swears than usual…