Dickens in today’s America

Thu 27 Oct 2016

Roughly at the halfway mark, Me, the protagonist of The Sellout , blows hashish smoke into his slave Hominy’s face, and as the stress leaves their bodies, he says the blackness too peeled from their hides, “the melanin fizzing and dissipating into nothingness like antacids dissolving in tap water.” Paul Beatty’s Booker winner this year is chock-full of lines like these, seemingly throwaway lines that ache with the weight of history.

In blackest of black America

Every now and then there comes a book like this, which makes your thumbs prick with prophecy. Halfway through this one, my thumbs were bleeding. The Sellout shocks you with its stark, ruthless and relentless satire, set in blackest of black America on the outskirts of whitest Los Angeles. Mr. Beatty is that fiendish stand-up comedian who drags you into his joke and makes you live it, uneasy, half-laughing and half-appalled.

Me’s father, a wild social psychologist whose lifetime work was to make his son realise how black and how doomed he was, is shot down by the cops because, well, “just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight.” Dickens is the black ghetto they live in, located not far from Foothill Freeway, where Rodney King’s life and “in a sense America and its haughty notions of fair play began their downward spiral.” Dickens is too ugly and poor to be allowed to survive, and in a biting passage on urban gentrification, the writer describes how the slum is quietly purged out of the map to ensure that it doesn’t lower property prices in its affluent neighbourhoods.

Me decides to restore Dickens, but also racial segregation. And slavery. And this is set, in fantastic irony, in Barack Obama’s America, roiled today by an election campaign defined by race, religion, gender and every other degree of divisiveness that can be dredged up. As you get deeper into the book, it spins faster and faster away from the centre and normalcy, from pious postures and politically correct responses and every fig leaf of righteous delusion that we share to tell ourselves that everything’s all right with the world. Mr. Beatty drags you into the heart of this black vortex, but he does so with a lyricism, tenderness and humour that keeps lighting up the edges.

Even so far away, our lives have resonated with the aftershocks of repeated police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. Not so long ago, 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel was assaulted by the police in Alabama for not responding in English. And closer home, we have had Africans targeted in Bengaluru and elsewhere by local hooligans. And Dalits get battered with the regularity almost of train schedules. The riff of racism plays out for us on a frighteningly intimate note. And Mr. Beatty is aware of this. In the book, when Me and Hominy work out how to bring back discrimination to Dickens, they toy with the caste system. “At the bottom,” says Hominy, “we’ll have the Untouchables… people who have the dirty jobs”.

‘Unmitigated blackness’, the term Mr. Beatty coins, becomes as real in this book as unmitigated brownness or unmitigated Dalitness is real on the streets for us. Mr. Beatty then takes this and stands it on its head and subverts every cultural reference, every constitutional assertion and affirmative action ever taken and shakes them out till they are empty of everything but their own stilted and hollow structures. And so, in a warped recasting of Rosa Parks’s stand in Alabama, Me gives Hominy a birthday present in the shape of a bus in Los Angeles that reintroduces segregated seating. And in an equal world where honey-toned women and coffee-dark men have finally been let into drawing rooms and luxury car commercials, Marpessa (Me’s scrappy girlfriend) asks why white people are never described by their skin tones: “Why aren’t there any yoghurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-stringed… white protagonists…?” But, as Mr. Beatty says with savage wit, white can always be whiter than white: “Bel Air white. Three first names white. Valet parking white. Laguna Beach volleyball white.”

The book bristles with a daunting range of swift, jab-and-hook cross-cultural references — from Barbra Streisand’s Jewishness to Madonna’s whiteness to Churchill and Godard, Colin Powell, Kafka, Darth Vader and the Lone Ranger — spanning high art and pop art with a playful ease that must have impressed the Booker jury. It mocks politics, cinema and racism, but also black activism, black assumptions and black preoccupations in a dizzying and breathless two-step that often leaves you grasping at nothingness — but, as Mr. Beatty says, “sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living”.

The writer’s Dickens, and by extension his America, is a dystopia, disarmingly lit up by neon fantasies and inspiring slogans and the pediment in the U.S. Supreme Court that says Equal Justice Under Law, but where, he says with breathtaking acerbity, the rights of “African-Americans were neither God-given nor constitutional, but immaterial”.

In a controversial year

Mr. Beatty has thumbed his nose at this entropic world with an uproarious, irreverent and riotous romp of a book — he has triumphantly “whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” And in a controversial year, when the Literature Nobel went to a songwriter, it seems particularly appropriate that the Booker has been awarded for the first time to an American writer who puts America and American values so nakedly on the mat. Looking back, we are likely to be startled that both in its political choices and in its Booker winner, the U.S. was handed such starkly candid mirrors this year.



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