Simple Complexity: The Subversive First Sentence of ‘The Sellout’

Let’s take a close look at the opening of the California Book Club’s February selection.

the sellout, paul beatty

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout offers us ample ground to think about craft and theme: every page is rich in detail and images, generating new reversals, ironies, and constellations on how we are to think about race, identity, and power. The Sellout takes place in the peripheries of Los Angeles, in a fictional town that used to be called Dickens. We come to learn that the removal of the town’s name is the inciting incident that propels our unnamed narrator all the way to the Supreme Court, where he is on trial for violating civil rights law.

While awaiting the beginning of the Supreme Court trial is the culmination for our protagonist, it is formally the beginning for us, though we don’t know it just yet.

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything,” the narrator tells us in the novel’s opening sentence—without revealing that he’s inside the court.

The few preconceptions that we have of the novel—that it’s funny, outrageous, raunchy, wild—might color the way we read this sentence. Because we have little to no context for this confession, we can only suspect that the narrator has been caught up in a messy predicament or simply wants to clarify a widely held stereotype to somewhat comedic and ironic effect. Consider, for example, the second phrase of the sentence, “coming from a black man,” which could have easily opened the novel: It reads quite like an afterthought, even as it is crucial to our understanding of the third phrase. Nonetheless, the location of the phrase announces both the voice of the narrator and the internal logic of the narrative we’re about to read—that is, something as important as race can be treated as an afterthought, addition, and aside. (Read Alta Journal’s excerpt from The Sellout here.)

The narrator continues:

Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in the seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis, and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.

In a New York Times review, Kevin Young points out that these sentences echo the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a groundbreaking novel that chronicles the life of an unnamed narrator who lives in a basement lair. While the nameless narrator of Invisible Man outlines his identity in affirmatives (“I am an invisible man,” or “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone”), the narrator of The Sellout expresses his identity through actions—or more specifically, through actions he has not taken. If it wasn’t clear from the first sentence alone, we are made to understand that the identity of Beatty’s narrator is entangled within the logics of class, criminality, and capitalism.

Nonetheless, if you, like me, are wondering when the outrage appears, the short and choppy sentences quickly tumble into a longer sentence (“Never boarded a crowded bus…”), where the successive actions become more and more shocking, though they are not spectacular, merely ribald and bawdy, playing on age-old tropes of the sexual prowess of Black men.

After all this, however, we are finally able to gather our bearings and understand why the narrator has spoken at length of his clean record—we are in the Supreme Court building. More than that, we are in “cavernous chambers” (here, Beatty’s superb turn of the phrase comes through quite forcefully). There is a musicality to Beatty’s prose, one that contains the irony and humor of The Sellout (such as the narrator’s car being “illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue”), reminding us that language here is not only the shuttle for meaning but itself the material for irony, coincidence, and humor.

The paragraph closes with an image of a “thickly padded” chair, which the narrator notes is “much like this country, [not] quite as comfortable as it looks.” And here is where Beatty implicitly names the central preoccupations of the novel: the things that are not as they appear, and the misunderstandings and conflicts that emerge when we attempt to make do with what is inadequate.

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Beatty on February 18, click here.

Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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