All too often, what passes for satire in novels is just cynicism dressed up for a few cheap laughs. It doesn’t really do what satire ought to do which is to take the reader way, way out of their comfort zone. Satire emerges as a mere excuse to poke fun at passing fads: at here today, gone tomorrow political fallout, at easy targets. In fact, as many comedians have recently observed, the task of creating satire is done for them by people like Donald Trump. Why write comedy when the next candidate for POTUS is a walking joke?
But The Sellout is something different altogether. It doesn’t just examine the way systemic racism still informs and props up contemporary American culture. It insists that racism is America and America is racism, and that it always has been. By Beatty’s own admission, that’s a pretty bleak, nihilistic message. But eventually even Me, protagonist of The Sellout admits: ‘sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.’
Me’s fictional ghetto, Dickens, set ‘on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles’ disappears from the map as a result of urban gentrification. Me sets about reinstating Dickens through a process of racial segregation and even slavery, becoming the reluctant owner of Hominy, former star of the racist TV show ‘Little Rascals.’ So ingrained have those stereotypes become that Hominy is now incapable of living without a master, and spends his entire existence assuming the role of a cotton picking, forelock tugging underling whose idea of a birthday treat is being whisked round on a segregated bus.
This is satire which is vicious, angry and does what satire really ought to be doing which is exposing the reader’s moral pretensions. It kind of functions as A Modest Proposal for our times. Jonathan Swift exhorts the eighteenth century British public to eat Irish children – because they’re killing them anyway. In the same way, Beatty waves the stereotypes embedded in our culture under our noses. You want racism? I’ll give you racism. You want to pretend segregation isn’t still a covert aspect of American culture? Let’s bring it out into the open – and see if we can look one another in the eye afterwards. It’s a book which shocks the reader out of all complacency. And that, at the end of the day, is the real purpose of satire.