Paul Beatty was announced as the finalist and winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction of 2016 for his novel, The Sellout. The novel has made previous waves in the literary world when it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in January of this year. That’s not the only striking thing about this book. Its place on the Man Booker shortlist is unique in that it is the first American novel to win the award.
The Man Booker Prize for fiction is a prestigious literary award by the Man Booker Group and is given to the best original English language novel published during the year. In all previous competitions, only books published in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, Ireland, and Zimbabwe could be considered for the prize. That was all changed in 2013 when the decision was made to allow any English-language novel published in the year to stand for judging.
The prize does much for the winner, skyrocketing their career to the international stage. Previous winners have been Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children), Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), and Margret Atwood (The Blind Assassin), to name a few. Notice how most of these books have landed on your English Literature 101 reading list. Paul Beatty is in good company.
The shortlist was released on September 13th and since then a few favorites had risen to the top. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing were highly favored, but ultimately The Sellout surpassed the competition.
Beatty’s novel deals with the heavy topics of racism, segregation, and prejudice in the modern world. It begins with the narrator, only named ‘Me’, living in Dickens, a suburb of Los Angeles which is described as an ‘agrarian ghetto’. Raised by a single father who was a sociologist, the narrator grew up as a subject for research and an anticipated publication. His father is killed in a police shoot-out, however, and the narrator finds out that his father’s supposed revolutionary book on race and politics does not exist. When Dickens is literally removed from printed maps the narrator embarks on a mission to save the town in the most controversial way: segregating the local high school and reinstating slavery. This action leads him to the Supreme Court for the legal and social battle of the century.
The Sellout has received widespread critical acclaim, and an equal amount of criticism. Many readers wonder at the purpose of a black man asking to be a slave and others state again and again that it is an outrageous satire done extremely well. Beatty does not consider himself a writer of satire. As he said in an interview with The Paris Review, thinking of The Sellout as a satirical novel detracts from the other many questions it’s posing. “It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else.”
Regardless of anyone’s opinion, the novel has shaped up to be an intriguing and thought-provoking look in to the “psychology of race”, as the Paris Review puts it. You want to know what the Supreme Court ruling is in the end? You’ll have to pick it up and find out. Readers beware, Beatty does not pull his punches. There are plenty of strong depictions and words from the onset and throughout.
Congrats to Paul Beatty!
by Lorna Hanson
Featured Image by Alex Welsh for The New York Times