The Sellout reviewed by Jim Feast
Review of: Paul Beatty, The Sellout (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Paul Beatty’s new novel, The Sellout, has been much praised by the reviewers. But that’s a double-edged sword in that many of the comments border on the ludicrous. One critic says that Beatty “outdoes himself,” and another that he is “back with his most penetrating satirical novel yet.” This makes it seem he can only be compared to himself.
Not that these writers go as far as the (unnamed) reviewer for the New York Times, who has this to say about Beatty’s earlier Tuff. “Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, the writing here is seamless.” I’m not sure being “seamless” is a writer’s ideal, but I would also say, if this reviewer is going so far, why not go all the way and say, “Beatty’s every letter is well chosen.”
The shallowness of these reviewers, certainly, has nothing to do with Beatty. It’s a general problem. Rather than saying much concrete about how a book is constructed, for instance, reviewers tend to be impressionists. I don’t mean they rely on gut feelings in making their evaluations. Far from it. They rely on American common sense notions, which, as we know, tend toward the anti-intellectual. And this certainly poses a problem for them in approaching a writer like Beatty. These reviewers are intelligent, no doubt, but (with many exceptions) are not interested in about, say, literary theory or literary history (such as the American humor tradition as discussed, for example, in Constance Rourke) or Continental philosophy. The problem is that strong novelists swim in deeper waters. Let me put that more concretely: one doesn’t read Paul Beatty without knowledge of Continental philosophy.
Sitting on that couch, watching the announcer gloat, my pacifist Negro chrysalis peeled away, and a glistening anger began to test its wings.
--- The White Boy Shuffle
In Being and Event, Alain Badiou makes the argument that there are few genuine individuals in this world. What makes an individual? In answering this question, Badiou plays a change-up on earlier existential philosophies, such as that of Sartre. According to these previous ideas, one lived authentically by daring to follow one’s (freely chosen) inner direction. For Badiou, in contrast, true subject-hood is gained by living in accord with something outside oneself, that is, with the event. The event is a significant and unexpected happening, a seeming anomaly that snaps the linearity of history, such as the 1960 Greensboro sit-in.
This event, as we know, inaugurated the series of sit-ins that swept across the Border states, making its repercussions distinct from the major civil rights protests that had occurred up to that time, those coordinated by Dr. King, which were site specific. Moreover, and this is a key feature of such a happening as Badoiu defines it, the event must institute new principles, such as, in this case, the application of the sit-in to non-labor struggles; the initiation of events by non-movement-linked, grassroots young people; the idea that blacks should disrupt commerce to demand equality, and so on.
For Badiou, the authentic person is one who is faithful to an event. This does not mean, not at all, that the individual directly participated in the event, although that’s one possibility. What it means is that the person accepted the new principles enunciated by the event and ever after lived her/his life in a way to uphold them.
Now I have no idea whether Beatty is familiar with Badiou’s ideas, but, nonetheless, each of his books lends itself to interpretation in relation to an understanding of the event. Or, to be more accurate, Beatty’s novels provide two supplements. One is that the individual, faithful to the event, as part of her or his becoming a subject may simultaneously create a once-lost city behind her. L.A., for instance, has to become a city again because on Wednesday April 29, 1992, the night of the Rodney King-verdict-sparked riots, it disappeared from the map.
The Revolution of 1789 is certainly French, yet France is not what engendered and named its eventness. It is much rather the case that it is the event that has retroactively given meaning … to the historical situation we call France.
--- Badiou, Being and Event
In The White Boy Shuffle, the narrator, Gunnar Kaufman, and L.A. organize themselves around the riots.
In the beginning of the book, Gunnar is caught between two worlds. Growing up in Santa Monica where he is something of a token in a nearly all white community, his mother suddenly (inexplicably to him) decides to move to the walled black ghetto of Hillside, which (like Berlin in a later novel) is nearly impervious to light. He notes about the new home, “Because of the wall’s immenseness [we] got only fifteen minutes of precious sunshine in summer and a burst of solstice sunlight in the winter.”
In some ways, this move is a disaster; in some an opportunity for the protagonist. But there’s a profound ontological insight in how the book is structured. At this point, Gunnar has moved from one world to another, but, no matter what he thinks – he bills himself “the whitest negro in captivity” -- he is not between worlds, he has simply relocated. It will take something else to move him into an interracial limbo, one which motivates him to make the book’s final, harrowing choice. During the 1992 riot, when he is reluctantly helping his gangster friend Psycho Loco and crew steal a safe, he is caught by a police patrol, one of whose members is his estranged dad. This causes his parents, concerned finally about the bad influences around him in Hillside, to transfer him to another white school, one in San Fernando Valley. It is this, commuting back and forth between near all-white and all-black societies, on top of his original relocation, that puts him permanently on a racial boundary.
This position does not make for, say, schizophrenia, but rather for a peculiar angle of vision on history. He sees the happening that so molded his life is being denied its natural relevance. The 1992 riot is being made by the media into a Non-event. It took place, yes, but, in contrast to say the 1965 Watts riots, which became a salient factor in the ongoing black power/civil rights movement, and took its place on a continuum of similar riots that were also ignited that summer , the 1992 riot seemed stillborn. There were no major echoing riots elsewhere; no inspiration for black social movements; no (except for the most cosmetic) attempts to provide any compensatory social welfare for the impoverished areas where the riots raged.
Why is that? Badiou discusses how events come to be significant in in relation to the rise of Christianity. He quotes Pascal, who stated that at the time of Christ’s death, “The people were divided … [Most] Jews refused … [to see any significance in Jesus] but not all of them.” Badoiu concludes, “the intervention [here the embracing of the new religion] is always an affair of the avant garde.” More broadly, “The belief of the intervening avant-garde bears on the eventness of the event and it decides the event’s belonging to the situation.” To put that in easier terms: An event only becomes an Event (a major historical watershed) if it so defined and given meaningfulness by groups, usually small ones, that argue its relevance into existence.
But in The White Boy Shuffle (and reality), nobody does this; nobody but Gunnar (and Beatty) argues for the Eventness of the riot.
And that’s why, certainly oddly enough for a comic novel, the book ends in despair. The narrator calls out his race for lacking a single individual who would put his life on the line for a new advance in freedom. Gunnar becomes an individual by demanding accountability, which, I think, includes remembrance of a disappeared Event.
This leaves one question still hanging, however, one that seems posed by the narrative but not answered, namely, how the city can be shown to also need an historical centering in a memory of the riot in order to be whole.
His next two books will try to think this through
i got to be here
to see this thing go down
do what I can
--- David Henderson, “Yarmuul Speaks of the Riots”
It is very tempting to read Tuff and Slumberland as attempts to look at cities in which there is a distorted relation between promising happenings and non-events. You might say it takes some chutzpah on Beatty’s part to label the fall of the Berlin Wall an insignificant non-event, but, as we’ll see, the deep structure of each novel turns on the examination of major happenings, which can either gain or lose importance, depending on how things shake out.
Tuff obviously turns on the death of Malcolm X. He first appears in the book preaching on the corner of Lenox and 125th. “The speaker, a clean-shaven, bespectacled man, was dressed in a clean but well-worn gray suit and trench coat.” The character Inez, after witnessing this speech, enrolls herself in the Organization of Afro-African Unity, because she thinks, “despite all the organizational infighting and bad grammar. nothing else made sense to her. What organizations other than OAUU were thinking globally?” But her exciting life as a movement activist all crashes down with Malcolm’s death. “The day Malcolm was shot, Inez drank herself numb at Showman’s Tavern.” And mark this: “The secret was out: more than the spokesperson for black pride had been slain; Harlem itself was dead.”
At that time, this assassination was seen as a world-historical Event, something brought out decisively in a poem David Henderson penned at the time. He states:
all we can remember of american history
is the clatter of gunfire
in the audubon ballroom
It is as if this event upended all time. But that was then.
While Inez can’t get this assassination out of her mind, the book takes place in 2001 when (it would seem) the black unity movement has been forgotten, at least by everyone but Inez. Like members of the avant garde, as Badiou pictures them, Inez is faithful to the event of Malcolm’s death, faithful to the leader’s message and purpose. When she realizes her old friend and the book’s main character, Winston “Tuff” Foshay, a low-level drug dealer in the style of Detroit Red, has political potential, she convinces him to run for city Council. Granted, his platform is a bit fuzzy. He states to an audience of supporters:
“First thing I would do is paint a yellow line on the ground that exactly matched the boundaries of the district. That way we’d know the neighborhood is ours . ‘This is our shit, step lively’ – you know what I’m saying.” [The significance of this yellow line will not be lost on readers of The Sellout.]
Winston went on to create a paradise ex nihilo, an idyllic shtetl of midnight swimming holes and hassle-free zones where denizens would be free to “drug, fuck, suck, and thug” to their heart’s delight.
Furthermore, his decision to participate in the election galvanizes his circle of chums. Fariq, Charley O, and Armello and others rally round him at least as it doesn’t interfere with their planned big score, a heist carried out with about the same competence as the one depicted in Big Deal on Madonna Street.
Inez has said to them in so many words: You have the choice to be faithful to Malcolm or not. And in pondering what to do, Tuff remembers what happened in a Japanese novel he read. A monk is asked about the meaning of life and replies by picking up a stick. “With a stick the monk draws a circle in the dirt around Musashi [the questioner] and walks away. … Musashi stood in that circle for hours … Finally he has a revelation: he and the universe are one.”
That’s one interpretation. But couldn’t the circle also be the decisive event? You can remain faithful to it, as Inez has, by never leaving the circle, no matter what happens in the outside world to tell you the event is insignificant, or you can walk away.
Aside from all its violence and chaos (mixed with rib-tickling wit and slapstick humor), Tuff is an optimistic book, one might say an insanely optimistic one, in that it argues that if one person remains faithful to it, then a non-event, even one that took place 35 years ago, can blossom into a true Event. Specifically, the near-forgotten assassination suddenly takes on substance in Tuff’s political campaign, whose message is: Malcolm X lives.
“What is he talking about now?”
Beatty’s next novel looks in the opposite direction, asking whether a world recognized Event can morph into a non-event.
Slumberland is set in Berlin, covering the time before and immediately after the Wall fell, and the book turns upon this fall, though this event is engaged complexly, available to both a German and an American reading.
To begin with the former, let’s look at Hölderin. In discussing this poet, Badiou begins by acknowledging “Any exegesis of Hölderin is … dependent on that of Heidegger.” For Badiou and Heidegger, Hölderin is the poet of the homeland, but paradoxically, for the German poet, the native place is best embodied in the Rhine River, which moves through and out of it. Badiou notes, “This sign of fluvial escape is precisely what links one to the homeland.” And, “The homeland is first what one leaves.”
Without elaborating too much, we can say the posited reuniting of the German people into one nation, accomplished symbolically by the tearing down of the wall, can be imagined as the creation of a true homeland. But, if we abide by Hölderin’s perspective, a homeland does not come from tying things closer together, but via distance. So, a country divided into exclusive western and eastern zones, thus containing distance inside their larger unit, seems somehow closer to a homeland than would a nation built from a homogenous space. This, as I see it, is the German side of a reading of Slumberland, which suggests the fall of the wall is not all it is supposed to be.
But there’s also a more positive, American way to look at the events in the novel, a way that demands a further reflection on Being and Event. I’ve mentioned that Badoiu says the true self comes to existence through faithfulness to an Event, which does not mean the individual was necessarily involved in the original happening. On the contrary, in some cases, “a non-institutional fidelity is a fidelity which is capable of discerning the marks of the event at the furthest point from the event itself.” To put that in plainer terms, certain key elements of the event, perhaps the key element, is only seen by an individual who stands very far from the center of things. Thus, in the fictional account of Slumberland, only the black expat narrator DJ Darky sees the real significance of the end of communism in Germany, which is that the little known black jazzman Charles Stone, caught by an historical accident in East Berlin when the wall was erected and, so, silenced, can give one last concert for the world.
That might seem a trifle outrageous, and it’s not something stated explicitly in the book, yet it has to be there, because it states a principal that is necessary for Beatty to move forward.
Let us imagine that Beatty were a mathematician not a novelist. Then, his original premise would be: The 1992 riot was an Event, although, by 1996, all of society says it was not. His proofs of the premise are as follows. First, pace Tuff: a seemingly forgotten circumstance, now a non-event, the death of Malcolm X, can re-become an Event through the actions of someone faithful to its original significance. Proof two, pace Slumberland: a much ballyhooed Event, the fall of the Berlin Wall, can actually be a non-event or, more precisely, it can appear to the world in a way that the most extraordinary thing about its coming to pass can remain almost unnoticed in the margins.
From these two proofs, we can deduct The Sellout.
But let’s start the discussion of that work on a different tack.
You have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I and How may I become myself?
--- The Sellout
Become who you are.
Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
The naïve reader might suppose Beatty lifted the plot of The Sellout from On the Genealogy of Morals.
In The Sellout, a rather unconventionally raised young man – he was homeschooled and subjected to psychological experiments (shades of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow) by a goofball dad and taught to raise fruit and cows in the middle of the L.A. ghetto – acquires a slave and begins a campaign to reinstitute segregation. It would seem the protagonist would like to go back to the bad old days of black exclusion.
We should bear in mind, though, that as Harold Cruse argued in Rebellion or Revolution, segregation did allow certain freedoms for blacks that are now lost. For example, he writes, black schools in the segregated South had many black teachers who promulgated liberation theology, black pride, and historical consciousness, things they would hardly have been allowed to do in integrated schools. In fact, in alluding to a similar situation in South Africa when the Bantu Education Act of 1953 excluded blacks from white schools and also banned the teaching of the white classics to blacks, Anne McClintock (in Imperial Leather) notes, this Act did “black writing an unwitting service, for the Soweto writers of the 1970s sidestepped many of the conflicts of cultural fealty that had plagued the [pre-Bantu Act] Sophiatown generation,” which had been educated with white models.
Now in Genealogy, Nietzsche takes up similar issues to those raised in Beatty’s novel. He states, “The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values.” “Ressentiment” here refers to a chafing envy and rancor toward the masters, who forcibly hold the slaves down. It creates in the oppressed a morality of repudiation. “While every noble [i.e., masters’] morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says NO. … No is its creative deed.” Where the masters revel in strength, the slaves vaunt weakness, humbleness and cravenly turn the other cheek to insult. Need I remind readers that for Nietzsche the embodiment of slave morality was Christianity?
Up to a point, the same situation. appears in The Sellout. The hero’s slave, Hominy who has talked his way into the job, because he misses the degradation he felt as a Step and Fetch It style black movie star, begs the hero, “Beat me within an inch of my life of my worthless black life. Beat me, but don’t kill me, massa. Beat me just enough so that I can feel what I’m missing.” Like Nietzsche’s Christian, Hominy has made a virtue out of his disempowerment. It’s as if Hominy heard someone say, “Well, now blacks can compete in the career world as equals.” And he replied, “But I want to be a slave.” Then the white liberal prodded, “But, Hominy, now you can live in an integrated neighborhood and attend integrated schools.” He replied, “I want to be excluded.”
But, the analogy with Nietzsche can only be taken so far, because, basically, there is a far different agenda here. As part of our hero’s desire to create a newly segregated neighborhood, he has to first give birth to his community, which, as an effect of the L.A. riots, disappeared from all maps.
One clear South Central morning, we awoke to find the city hadn’t been renamed but the signs that said WELCOME TO THE CITY OF DICKENS were gone. There never was an official announcement, an article in the paper, or a feature on the evening news. No one cared.
You see the parallel to what I said before. Beatty writes, “Since the riots, Dickens, a once united neighborhood, had balkanized into countless smaller hoods.” The falling of Dickens from the map coincides with the failure of the 1992 riots to become an historical marker.
I said earlier, without elaborating, that one of Beatty’s central arguments is that “on Wednesday April 29, 1992 … [L.A.] disappeared from the map.” Now this idea can be understood. We saw the same thing happen in February 1965 when, to re-cite an already noted passage, “The secret was out: more than the spokesperson for black pride had been slain; Harlem itself was dead.”
What if what the author and many minority residents in a particular city consider to be the turning point in their lifetime, the riot, has been, at least in all mainstream sources, systematically underplayed and forgotten?
There were damn good reasons for the establishment to forget and the disenfranchised to remember this eruption. In the early 1990s, an era of seemingly tranquilized, pacified minorities, where, as the mainstream viewed things, suppression could continue without protest and, for any police force, black lives didn’t matter, one infamy, the Rodney King beat-down, would not be tolerated. With no leaders and no directions, the people decided to violently state: No justice, no business as usual. It’s a message that those at the top didn’t want to hear. They didn’t want to listen to the plain expression of this demand: The oppression you carry out against us must know bounds.
I think we can say about The Sellout: There never has been a more powerful book about memory than this one. It argues that no matter what the disavowals, a central memory cannot be expunged.
Let’s posit the erasure of Dickens is a metaphorical bridge to the mainstream’s forgetting, no, refusal to remember the riots. And, let’s say, counterfactually, the hero of The Sellout had studied Beatty’s two previous novels in order to devise strategies to put his community back into existence.
Tuff: Lesson Learned: As long as you are faithful to the Event, here the memory of the vitality of Dickens, you can re-enter the game, even years later, when you decide to forcefully assert its existence.
The hero explains his plan to bring Dickens back to the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals, “I explained that the boundary labels were to be spray-painted onto the sidewalks and that the lines of demarcation would be denoted by a configuration of mirrors ... or if that proved to be cost prohibitive, I could simply circumnavigate the twelve miles of border with a three-inch strip of white paint.”
Not surprisingly, the dissident intellectuals “diss” the plan, but the common folk embrace it. “It became obvious to any Dickensian over the age of ten what I was doing. Unsolicited, groups of truant teens and homeless would stand guard over the line. ... Sometime, after retiring [from painting] for the day, I’d return the next morning, only to find that someone else had taken up where I’d left off.”
Slumberland: Two Lessons Learned: This comes partly by reversal. Let’s say that a seemingly major Event does not have (at the psychic level at least) any of the significance attributed to it while, at the same time, what is really significant about it goes unnoticed. Then, we can establish, first, by contrast, that what the mainstream thinks of as a non-event, actually can have towering significance, and second – this is not at contrast -- a seemingly insignificant happening, the painting of a line, can have a profound importance.
It is these lessons, not Nietzsche’s, which frame the book’s argument for the reinstatement of segregation, which, translates into a recreation of an erased neighborhood, which symbolically signifies a reinstated history that revivifies of the significance of the L.A. riots.
The brilliant gambit of the hero, called Sellout, is this demand: As long as all opportunities are blocked for minorities (no matter what the rhetoric), we’ll keep some (minimal and voluntary) slavery, some segregation. This will also keep the memory of the riots, the memory that too much repression will lead to a violent repudiation, alive and fertile. In other words, to keep the poor from falling into the dream world of the media, they have to have in front of them living embodiments of explicit racism, which has now been disguised by implicit institutional forms of that same racism. The establishment has to see Dickens on the map.
These last points will hardly be revelations to readers as they are stated directly in the novel. After Sellout puts up segregated seating charts on the bus and observes the results, he comments, “It’s the signs. People grouse at first, but the racism takes them back. Makes them humble. Make them realize how far we’ve come and, more important, how far we have to go.” Moreover, the link between the riots and the loss of community is explained in the already quoted point about how “since the riots,” the community has been broken up.
I am not discovering but simply looking at the fuller implications of these points, both in relation to Beatty’s other novels and to his peculiar vision of the hero as a surrogate city.
Foy [a notorious black intellectual] turned the gun away from me and raised it to his ear, then with his free hand dumped the pail of unstirred and semi-hardened stain over his head. … the paint oozed over the left half of his face and down the length of one side of his body, until one eye, one nostril, one shirtsleeve, on pant leg and on Patek Phillipe watch were washed completely white.
---- The Sellout
Call me Jason, Jason Argonaut…. As a child coming up, I had it hard, being of mixed parentage. My father was white: a high-priced, high-octane corporate lawyer ... my mother was black: a ghetto drug dealer. Due to a unique genetic condition, I had a stripe down the center of my body, neatly dividing my African-American left side from my Caucasian right side.
JF, from The Unbearables Big Book of Sex
Before defining the hero as city idea, let me say one point about Beatty’s prose style, which demands one last glance at Badiou.
The individual, to be authentic, must remain faithful to the Event by believing in its significance. This is what produces truth and reality. But the subject cannot know when she or he is creating truth. Badiou says, “Because the subject is a local configuration, it is clear the truth is equally indiscernible ‘for him’ – the truth is global.” To put this in conventional terms, the subject cannot see all the world or all history to realize whether the Event will have salient significance for others elsewhere in time and space. To return to an earlier example, if a 1960s militant remains faithful to the Greensboro sit-in up to today, she or he has no idea whether the event will remain a central historical marker of the black struggle or whether (in a worst case scenario), it will be extinguished and removed from history books in, say, the instituting of a national fascism.
This “wager” on the continuing significance of the Event (which I am arguing is metaphorically represented in the novel by the presence/absence of Dickens) may put the individual in an unusual relation to language. Suppose, like Sellout, the person is counting on the existence of something, Dickens, which does not at a particular moment, in strict fact, exist. Then he talks in a strange way. In this case, Badiou argues, “The names used by a subject … do not, in general, have a referent in the situation. Therefore, they do not double the established language. But then what use are they? These are words that do designate terms, but terms ... which result … from the addition to the situation of … an “indiscernible” truth.
Here we arrive at a second supplement Beatty makes to Badiou’s bookish ideas. Where in the philosopher’s discussion (as far as we’ve gone into it), the militant can only be confident, not sure, of the significance of the Event and proclaims her or his faith by imposing on the world a new set of terms, in The Sellout, the hero only introduces one term: Dickens. And unlike Badiou’s militants who use new terms to introduce linguistic innovation, Beatty’s hero is intent on forcing this term onto the map and into embodied reality. By putting the term into circulation, and giving it grassroots dimensions as others join in painting the demarcation, he doesn’t just anticipate the future but coaxes it into (at least a period of) reality. It’s as if a mirage in the desert, the urban desert, suddenly became an existing architectural entity.
My whole reading of this book depends on an analogy, maybe a forced one, that the rebirth of Dickens symbolizes the making of the 1992 riot into a felt Event, repositioning it as a part of memory that connects to the present. This idea is certainly debatable. Yet, how else explain the incredible fecundity, creativity and splendor of Beatty’s language except to imagine that he is presenting surrogates for the words of an “indiscernible” truth? His books, none of them, are comic commentaries on what is. They are faithful to a forgotten Event, acting as if his prose could shift the world into another category. All this, I would posit further, is driven by an abiding rage, a sort of L.A. spleen, the one remarked on earlier when a “glistening anger began to test its wings.”
Because of this viewpoint, his leading characters do not define themselves according to the older existential, humanist postulates. This is the mistaken way of seeing the world epitomized by Foy (and my Jason). Foy “dumped the pail of unstirred and semi-hardened stain” until he is colored half white. In dead-end despair, Foy is symbolically locating himself by drawing a line down his middle. In reacting, he is thinking of the self as no more than the biological body.
The Sellout, by contrast, creates himself by drawing a line on the sidewalk, just as Tuff whips one around his section of Harlem or Charles Stone (in a point not mentioned) tries to rebuild the toppled Berlin Wall. Like Beatty, each central figure in these novels stands faithfully within “a circle in the dirt” to become a self and to drive the forgotten memory of an Event, full scale into the present.