Event Recap: How Paul Beatty Interrogates the Dominant Culture

The author of The Sellout thinks place, identity, and culture are perpetually changing.

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Paul Beatty’s oeuvre is centrally concerned with setting and belonging, so it is no surprise that this was where we began during the fifth installment of Alta Journal’s California Book Club. “When I was young, there’s a street called Cadillac, which kind of runs between Robertson and La Cienega, sort of divides a denser part of the neighborhood,” said Beatty, of the Los Angeles of his youth. “There’s more multidwelling places, a lot of apartments, and then on my side, which is on the side of an elementary school called Shenandoah, it’s single-family housing. But, you know, everyone in L.A. has borders.”

Hosted by Oscar Villalon, book club members gathered virtually last night to discuss Beatty’s The Sellout, a tragicomic novel about a young Black man (nicknamed Bonbon) who finds himself on trial at the Supreme Court for reinstating segregation in his L.A. hometown, Dickens, after its name is effaced from all maps.

Our special guest, Michael Jaime-Becerra, author of Every Night Is Ladies’ Night, joined the discussion early on, catapulting us into a conversation about the tensions between the desire for visibility and the ways Bonbon attempts to fold himself into and transcend a dominant culture.

“I think for the character the dominant culture is kind of his father,” Beatty joked. “For me it’s not purposeful. I don’t write towards an audience, especially a demographically defined audience, or I try not to. So in that book, I don’t think there are any white characters, if that’s what we mean by dominant culture. I think for him the dominant culture is the people that are around him—that he kind of belongs to and doesn’t belong to. I think all the mores and the language and all that stuff is a mishmash.”

Jaime-Becerra read a short excerpt from The Sellout, keen to point out the beauty of the representation of Florentine Gardens—a popular Hollywood nightclub—along with the way nightclubs and music in the novel function as tools of segregation.

“I think it ties into what you were saying about dominant culture and what Oscar was saying about my neighborhood. I think the dominant culture changes so frequently. About whose side you want to be on. I don’t really think about the book in that detail, but if I think about Dillon’s and Florentine Gardens—those are two places, and I think I’ve only been to each of them once,” said Beatty. “[When I was younger] my group of friends, we were a mix of Black, Latino, Honduran American, and Mexican American kids. And each of them had their different versions of what dominant culture—where we’re going to go, what we’re going to explore.”

“You’re kind of in the same place—almost like turning the radio station…. Kind of all extant in the same place, but you can go back and forth. I don’t know, but it reminds me of L.A. in a weird way,” Beatty concluded.

Upon Villalon observing that it seems Beatty is not invested in outlining a dominant culture because, in major metropolitan areas, there exists an anxiety in picking “a lane,” Beatty suggested that different identity markers are quite porous and, thus, inadvertently defied. “There were so many people swerving in and out of lanes all the time. So I don’t think—in part, because our neighborhood was—I hate the word fluid—the borders were so ill-defined oftentimes. I think a lot of us didn’t really pay attention to those lanes. I think it changed a little bit once we got older.”

Jaime-Becerra read another excerpt, supremely interested in the use of sports in the novel. “The Lakers as some kind of lingua franca that gives some people a sort of common ground,” said Beatty. “It’s not like I’m a huge Lakers fan or anything, but it is kind of a weird thing. You go to the Dodgers game, and it’s kind of like the one place where it still feels L.A. to me, somehow. It’s not like I go to Dodgers games very often, but for me it’s about memory and those other weird things about who can stay in a lane.”

The event concluded with Villalon asking how Beatty negotiates writing about the kind of ineffable loneliness somewhat inherent to living in Los Angeles. “To the degree, or how, you’re ambulatory in L.A. is important,” said Beatty. “In [my college] class, the students really get caught up in the driving and so—but the thing is to get to the notion that the driving is not the thing itself but a part of the narrative. Because again, it’s about lanes.”

Alta’s California Book Club will return on March 18, in conversation with Nina Revoyr. We’ll be talking about her celebrated novel Southland, a crime story about two seemingly disparate L.A. communities. For more information, click here.

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