In The Sellout (2015) Paul Beatty offers a frenzied tale of African American life in Los Angeles. This is not a work of realism: it’s more a hallucinogenic rant, grounded in the real and unreal. Its first-person narration by the main character Me suggested Hunter S. Thompson at his best. It also suggested Thomas Pynchon, especially his most recent novel Inherent Jest.
Me as a narrator is often stoned, and he claims to be a grower of both watermelons, which earns him most of his money, and marijuana.
The novel is infused with wide-ranging references to American culture, especially contemporary popular culture. Its range seems nearly encyclopedic and free form.
The narrative invokes practically every racial or ethnic stereotype one might think of. This is a deliberate strategy. Beatty both accepts, subverts, and exploits stereotypes, which are products of human nature and of the facts (in this novel) of America’s racial history. His tone is exasperated anger—at white culture, at black culture, at racism and commercialism and history. We are all victims. But black people most specifically are victims of white culture. It’s not only the fact that America’s history has been racist and oppressive to blacks. It’s also the basic statistical reality that white Americans outnumber black Americans, who are oppressed if not suffocated by the shadow of white culture.
After a point the satire and comedy in The Sellout became exhausting. I sometimes wondered whether Beatty would pursue any opportunity for the ridiculous and outrageous even at the cost of obscuring what his novel is after.