NB Not a film.

I was alerted to The Sellout via its Booker Prize win last year, when it was described varyingly as a modern satire with “savage wit” and “funny and painful” by the Booker judges. But having finally managed to read it earlier this year, I have been left somewhat confused.

The Sellout tells the story of “Me” and how he has ended up in the US Supreme Court, accused of implementing slavery and segregation in his home town, near LA. The Sellout has been posited as satire on contemporary American society, which I guess it kind of is, but there are many aspects which aren’t- resulting in an oddly contradictory novel.

I understand how the author uses Me’s attempts at (illegal) segregation to reflect the legal segregation occurring all across the US; how for some the explicit boundaries created by slavery could become preferable to a confusing world of equal opportunities in which some are patently more equal than others. But apart from Beatty’s skewering of (some) black intellectualism, none of these concepts seemed to be particularly satirical or funny. And to be fair to Paul Beatty he doesn’t actually seem to be the one claiming that it is funny.

But aside from the humour deficits, there’s very little character development and just an uninspired, plodding style of writing that I did not get along with. Some of this may have been compounded by my missing various American references, but even so this book seemed to swing wildly about the place with no real focus. So there’s a strange juxtaposition of scene setting for a Supreme Court hearing (which I quite enjoyed), to various lengthy paragraphs on fruit growing. There were a few brief moments which raised a smile- the unexpected reference to Shonen Knife, and what I’m sure was a subtle dig at David Sedaris. But I was still left feeling that this book did not deliver what it could have done, which makes the Booker Prize award even more surprising.

Reader, I was puzzled.

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