Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning (2016) novel, The Sellout, is hilarious satire that makes fun of many things that America holds sacred. But the satire and its fun are so much American that many Indian readers may find it hard to comprehend. Frankly, I had to refer to the internet scores of times in order to understand the allusions that the novel carries on almost every page.
|The book and the author|
The narrator of the novel referred to by only his surname, Me, is facing a trial in the Supreme Court for keeping a black slave. Me is black himself. The slave he keeps is Homini, the last of the Little Rascals actors still alive. Homini wanted to be a slave. It helps him retain his African-American identity. The whiplash on his back makes his back feel good though his heart feels good while living in a Black-only area. The narrator also has a strong though complex affiliation with Dickens, a Black-only ghetto.
Me’s father was a sociologist who used the little boy as a subject of many psychological experiments. As a grown-up Me wished to tell his girlfriend Marpessa (who deserted him and married somebody else) about one of those experiments when she accuses him of getting a “fucking hard-on” looking at a naked white woman swimming in the ocean. His father locked his head into the tachistoscope and for three hours flashed split-second images of the forbidden fruit of his era, “pinups and Playboy centrefolds,” in his face. It was “Aversion therapy.” Then we get a list of American pinups and Playboy models.
The novel is replete with such names and allusions. It plays on literary pieces and names. It makes use of psychological terms and concepts to satirise different things. Those who are not familiar with all those allusions will find the novel hard to understand, let alone enjoy.
Some of the allusions are easy to understand. For example:
Theirs not to reason what the fuck,
Theirs but to shoot and duck:
Niggers to the right of them
Niggers to the left of them,
Niggers in front of them
Partied and blundered...
1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes on four legs, or six wings and a biscuit, is a friend.
3. No Pigger shall wear shorts in the fall, much less the winter.
6. All Piggers are created equal, but some Piggers ain’t shit.
In case you don’t understand those allusions, leave Beatty’s book alone.
However, if you’re willing to do more research than an obscenely paid Indian university prof of lit would ever do in his/her entire career in order to understand a novel, this is just the book for you.