Too Far or Not Enough? Satire as criticism in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a work that uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and or criticise prevailing immorality or foolishness’, satire is a common literary device used to comment on political issues in society. I would argue that, particularly in today’s political climate, it is hard to see Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout, as anything less. In the opening chapter of the novel, the words of our narrator, who we know only as BonBon or Mr Me, weigh heavily in the argument that the writer was intent upon showing a scathing criticism of modern society and the place systemic racism holds within it;

‘I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief’ (18).

An image of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020

An African American man, who has been raised in a Los Angeles neighbourhood known as Dickens, the novel’s protagonist wittily offers us his version of events as they took place. Seemingly unscarred by systemic racism until his father’s death at the hands of two white police offers – an image that is all too familiar in today’s society – BonBon appears apathetic to the notion of systemic racism and privilege in his society. His throw-away yet jarring comments about his own life and his newly re-established Dickens, ‘a community-cum-leper colony’ (109) leave us as a reader unsettled and uncomfortable. Delmagori offers, ‘the novel provides a more effective lens for exploring the critique of privilege because it illuminates the larger social order and the ways in which privilege is actualised at the individual and systemic levels’ (417). Subverting the role Rosa Parks played in the American Civil Rights movement, BonBon begins to reinstate segregation through his sign on the bus, ‘Priority seating for seniors, disabled and Whites’ (128). The notion that this is Hominy’s birthday present confuses the reader. I regularly found myself uncertain if I should be finding humour in Beatty’s playing on important events of history or if abject horror at the context of these situations is the only acceptable reaction.

The cast of the 1930s sketch show Little Rascals

Irony is the thread that stitches this novel together, but none so much as the character of Hominy Jenkins, who establishes the role of a modern-day slave. Desperate to take on this role, he appeals to BonBon, ‘I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play’ (77)). It is important to note Hominy’s rhetoric here, he himself was a child star in the 1930s sketch show Little Rascals, – a role he has clung to for his entire adult life – and so suggesting he was born to play the role of a slave is a loaded statement. On one hand it shows his desire for a theatrical purpose, to ‘feel relevant’ (77) within BonBon’s social experiments, but the statement also suggests that Hominy – as a black man – was literally born to be a slave. In a 21st century society, where many would hope to be abhorred of this idea, the starkness and brevity of this suggestion reinforces Beatty’s using satire to criticise modern society’s entanglement with systemic racism and privilege. The irony of the situation being BonBon’s emphasis on Hominy’s poor work ethic stating, ‘slaves don’t do what you tell them to do’ (81) and exclaiming, ‘human-bondage is an especially frustrating undertaking,’(82). Hominy desires to be recognised as a slave, but he is not required to work.

Beatty’s ridiculing of modern society owes in part its success to how the narrative is interspersed with prophetic metaphors that illuminate the failings of current society, and how we interpret history. ‘That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the things that stays with you’ (115). However, the coarse language amongst such lyrical text is jarring for reader, forcing us to focus our attention on what is being written. We are living history at this moment. With the protests following the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the loss of countless other lives to police brutality, privilege based on the colour of one’s skin undermines the wish that society has progressed beyond the days of slavery.

Breonna Taylor Mural

To conclude, in a society where the Black Lives Matter movement is increasing its visibility despite a pandemic, and there is increased public outcry at police brutality, does Paul Beatty go far enough with his satirical trope in order to criticise a society? I would argue that yes, he is successful in projecting a distrustful and disenchanted critique of our society and privilege. In an unstable political climate such as the one we are currently facing, novels such as Beatty’s serve as important vehicles to educate the privileged and illuminate the voices of those less recognised.

WORKS CITED

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout, London: Oneworld Publications, 2016. Print

Secondary Sources

Delmagori, Steven, Super Deluxe Whiteness: Privilege Critique in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Online

Cross, William E, The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience, 1971. Online

8 thoughts on “Too Far or Not Enough? Satire as criticism in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

  1. I thought this a really insightful piece on Beatty’s text, Caitlin. I specifically liked your observation that “Beatty’s ridiculing of modern society owes in part its success to how the narrative is interspersed with prophetic metaphors that illuminate the failings of current society […].”

    After today’s discussion, I feel that labelling the text as a satire possibly places limits on Beatty’s broader intentions? In an interview with Chris Jackson (Paris Review), Beatty expresses why he avoids defining his work is satirical: “There’s comedy in the book, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there, too. It’s easy just to hide behind the humour, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else.” It is really difficult to categorise the text as I feel that there is just so much going on. I am still not completely decided myself – just found his refusal of the term very interesting and would need to spend more time unpacking this in relation to the text.

    1. I very much agree with you, Megan, that Beatty’s refuting the idea that the novel is satire is interesting. I think it leaves us, as the reader, with even more questions than those just left from the novel alone.

      Following today’s discussion in class, I too found myself further questioning the argument as to whether this novel is indeed a satire, reconsidering the arguments I had put forward in this blog. The question of readership is one that I hadn’t fully considered, and therefore do believe this may impact how the genre is determined.

      However, whether it was Beatty’s intention or not, I still feel that with the literary devices used throughout the novel it does maintain elements of satire, particularly with reference to the use of exaggeration and irony.
      Your observation that ‘labelling the text as satire possibly places limits on Beatty’s broader intentions?’, is an important point, and I too feel that more time examining this in relation to the text is needed.

  2. I thought this response to ‘The Sellout’ was very engaging Caitlín! Also Megan I really appreciate your comment’s inclusion of Beatty’s interview and his hesitation to be labelled as a satirist.

    I agree, I think Beatty intentionally ensures the reader’s discomfort as he distorts and utilises the historical context of racism against the backdrop of a modern day America. I was particularly encouraged by your observation and close reading of Hominy, who’s self-imposed role of slave, “reinforces Beatty’s use of satire to criticise modern day society’s entanglement with systemic racism and privilege”.

    I also think it was important to discuss the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and consider Beatty’s text and its use of humour within this context. I think Beatty’s use of uncomfortable or ‘dark’ humour highlights white America’s refusal to acknowledge the continued existence of systemic racism.

    I agree with Caitlín, specifically her comment “I regularly found myself uncertain if I should be finding humour in Beatty’s playing on important events of history or if abject horror at the context of these situations is the only acceptable reaction”. Considering Beatty’s denial of the label of satirist alongside his peculiar use of humour, we as readers are left wondering what exactly is funny about the situation he actually presents us.

    1. I find ‘peculiar’ to be a very appropriate way of describing Beatty’s humour, Danielle. This, for me, was the main source of discomfort when reading the novel. I felt permanently unsettled when reading ‘The Sellout’ and this I think is owed to the nature of the author’s use of humour.
      Much like Conor suggested in class, I started to feel that perhaps I was a reflection of the white couple at the open mic night, intruding on something that didn’t belong to me, when finding certain moments in the novel humorous.

  3. I thought this was a really interesting reading, Caitlín, and definitely agree with your concluding point that novels like these are necessary “to educate the privileged and illuminate the voices of those less recognised”
    I agree with your point that Beatty often coarsens profound moments in the novel, such as his reflection on history. Another such moment that stood out for me is Me emphasising that he “didn’t cry” at his father’s death but instead narrates that he sits his dead body up in the donut shop without “dropping my shake”. The dark, absurd humour here maybe reflects what Beatty himself looks for in other writers. In his anthology of African-American humour, he curated works that he found “eccentric, liberating and savagely comic” which could definitely describe The Sellout and what makes it such a jarring and effective satire. Another telling part of Beatty’s introduction to his anthology is his assertion that if you can convince others that “you’re laughing, then you ain’t hurt.” This is revealing of Beatty’s satirical style throughout the novel. To describe the same painful events and themes of the text without the disorientating absurdities and sardonic narrative voice would create an entirely different novel but would arguably not be as effective.

  4. Thanks for your article, Caitlin, I enjoyed reading it.

    Thinking about the use of comedy/satire to treat concrete societal injustices, following on from last week’s discussion, it seems to me that absurd humour can be used to highlight the absurdity of reality by making it explicit, by pushing its (il)logic to the extremes, or by illuminating it from a new and interesting angle. Beatty employs this technique throughout, as you point out, subverting the role of Rosa Parks in order to represent explicitly the obfuscated or unspoken spectre of segregation. Typically, (and this is certainly true of The Sellout) such satire/comedy presents characters reacting rationally within a situation which is absurd, and it is this incongruity which gives rise to the comedic effect (eg. in the Supreme Court scene).

    In these ways I think that Beatty’s satire is an effective one, although the larger question of the role of satire in dismantling such absurd systems of reality still remains. I am, however, tempted to agree with your conclusion that “novels such as Beatty’s serve as important vehicles to educate the privileged and illuminate the voices of those less recognised.”

  5. I found that ‘The Sellout’ was littered with a lot of racial self-hatred. I also found that the main character was not a likeable character. An example of this is when he took too long to cut down his friend who was attempting suicide. He purposely walked and didn’t run to get the hedge cutters. He has a dysfunctional relationship with his late father. He is continuously asking himself what his father might think of him and even though he seems to outright hate his father – he always seems to fret about what his father might think of him.

    Beatty didn’t want to be seen as a satirist. The humour in this novel made me feel uneasy. It is an uncomfortable novel to read. What function is the humour really used for? I don’t think the novel was written for our amusement. We are challenged to make sense the purpose of the novel. There is a racial stereotype of black literature. I wonder if this novel gives us any hope. His satire is indeed effective in making the reader feel uncomfortable.

  6. Caitlin, I have very much enjoyed your analysis of satire throughout the novel it is very insightful. For myself, I took a slightly different approach while looking at satire in the novel. I was looking at it as satire being used as a coping mechanism or an escape from trauma. Rightly outlined, we are living in an era where the world is starting to open their collective eyes to the racialized violence that is brutally enacted by the police and have been doing since the police force was born. The aspect of comedy as a way to work through trauma was no more relevant I feel than in the “open-mike” night when the white couple are kicked out for laughing too much. It feels to me that “gatekeeping” shown by the stand up is rightly carried out as trauma is something that can only be laughed at by people who experience such trauma. For someone to laugh at your own trauma or misfortune and does not know the extent to your own troubles, it no longer is funny and seems as if they are degrading/mocking your for your trauma. I would like to hear if you have any insights in regard to this idea?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *