Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was published just a few months before Donald Trump officially announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency and two years before he was sworn into the highest office in the country. While it might seem fitting to suggest that The Sellout predicts the impending depravities and folly of the Trump administration (and politics at large), we must remember that Beatty wrote most of the novel during the Obama administration.
You might be thinking, reader, Well, why is this so important? And the answer is that The Sellout—which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its February 18 gathering—emerged during (what many people dubbed) a post-racial moment, wherein the United States was purportedly free from racial discrimination and prejudice.
At the beginning of The Sellout, the unnamed protagonist (who is oftentimes derisively called Bonbon) sits before the Supreme Court, awaiting a criminal trial for violating civil rights law. We soon learn that, following the removal of his hometown, Dickens, from all maps, the protagonist reintroduced segregation through a white color line and decided to take in his late father’s childhood friend Hominy as a slave (doing so, though, upon Hominy’s insistence).
Through the great absurdities of this novel, Beatty ultimately asks us to question the terms of equality in the United States. Indeed, the central dilemma of the novel might be put in the following terms: What does equal justice under the law mean now?
Beatty is not the first writer to attempt to unsettle our understanding of race, structural oppression, and inequality in the United States. Writers like Colson Whitehead, Junot Díaz, and Toni Morrison, to name a few, have turned to the novel and the critical essay to consider the nature of identity politics and the construction of a cohesive national body, one that attempts to move toward a multiracial ideal.
The Sellout, however, pries open and muddies the boundaries among liberal, neoliberal, and right-wing politics, showcasing the hypocrisies and paradoxes of the facade of equality. In other words, we see what happens when equity and justice do not prevail and when folks take matters into their own hands, using the tools and technologies of (“reverse”) racism for their own ends.
The Sellout is ultimately a narrative that shows how the personal is forged precisely through the overlap of private and public experiences, which can be neither separated nor totally elided. By the end of the novel, we are only left pondering what the nature of justice is and how much more we have to strive for it.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Beatty on February 18, click here.