Man Booker prize: Paul Beatty wins with The Sellout

Author wins for satire on race in the US and becomes first American to win prize

Man Booker prize 2016 winner  Paul Beatty with his book The Sellout. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

Man Booker prize 2016 winner Paul Beatty with his book The Sellout. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

 

As darkening clouds of disbelief continue to gather over the US, anything can now happen. We know that for certain; the great Bob Dylan insists on pretending that he did not win the Nobel Prize in Literature – he shares our communal irony, wise man that he is – while millions of Americans like to feel that Donald Trump is not really running for president and that his deranged outpourings are merely minor nightmares imposed on a society so badly behaved it deserves no better.

Into this ongoing moment of Wizard of Oz madness, as comedians struggle to keep apace with the latest affront to women and people of all races, comes The Man Booker 2016 winner Paul Beatty with a fantasy satire featuring a narrator named Me, who is a farmer intent on re-introducing slavery to a town called Dickens.

With all due respect to Beatty, the Los Angeles-born poet and novelist who has been awarded this year’s prize for The Sellout, well the result seems just that, a bit of a sellout with traces of “haven’t I read this before?”

Chances are you will have seen thematic similarities in TV shows and sketches, or in any number of screwball movie plots. Ho Hum.

The Man Booker judges did single out a great American novel, but it did not make the shortlist. More of that anon.

The problem with writing a no-holds-barred satire about race in America, as Beatty has done, is that the subject has been feeding comedians and sit-coms for generations. It is very funny in a way similar to having your swimsuit disintegrate in a public pool. Race is a topic that never goes away, ask Donald Trump.

Beatty’s fourth novel is indeed sort of funny, but for all the familiar gags, the outrage and the anger, readers may well feel like shouting “so tell us something we don’t know” .

Me the narrator is a farmer who enjoys surfing (it could only happen in California); he has a plan to re-introduce slavery. This is a sensitive subject and Beatty freely sprinkles his narrative with the word “nigger”, just to push his foot through the floor. Of course, it all ends in court; his plans have too many loopholes.

In 1994 maestro William Gaddis published another of his grand operatic satires, A Frolic of His Own; it too was a fourth novel and far funnier than The Sellout. In it a college lecturer, Oscar Crease, who was hit by a car, takes a court case. The problem is, it was his own car and it struck him while he was hotwiring it. That said, Gaddis’s third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic (1986), about a demented Vietnam war vet attempting to make money out of a TV preacher who faces disaster when a public baptism goes badly wrong, is also way better than The Sellout.

So the Man Booker has given us a both-barrels book intened to make Americans cry, cringe and/or giggle – and they have – and everyone else laugh pretty much as the world is currently guffawing at the US. There is also and will be individual readers who will fester with irritation at the obviousness of it all.

The Sellout won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. But as for Man Booker, it was time an American won; it seems so long ago, when in deepest summer, on July 27th to be exact, the 13-strong Man Booker longlist was announced and on it was a superb American novel, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I can recall writing: “Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, she could well win the Man Booker with this one.”

She failed to make the shortlist and seemed to have left the field clear for Canadian Madeleine Thien with Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a powerful and earnest look at modern China’s political and cultural history. It is an epic; an important work, symphonic in methodology and deliberate. It is worthy, ambitious and will endure.

Her prose lacks the wicked glee of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, yet Thien, also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the major literary award in Canada which will decided on November 7th, seemed the likely and deserving winner. But no, for the second year running the award has gone to a loud, unsubtle obvious novel. The Sellout, in common with last year’s admittedly far more violent Man Booker victor, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Jamaican Marlon James, has already done the rounds in the US literary review and awards circuit.

Both books were also published in the UK by One World, an independent London publisher which keeps a keen eye on successful US books.

It should also be noted that many commentators felt that South African-born, British-based Deborah Levy, who had returned to the literary scene after a 15-year silence with her deservedly 2011 Man Booker shortlisted Swimming Home, could win with Hot Milk. It is a glib, predictable performance in which 25-year-old Sofia, smart and sexually supercharged, never mind aware, has come to Spain while her ailing mother attends a crackpot clinic run by a shrewd guru.

It does crank up a gear when Sofia, an overwhelmingly knowing narrator, heads off to Athens to visit her father. He is now married to a much younger woman and the couple are at the mercy of a baby. The novel triumphs, belatedly on a poignant father-daughter exchange in a café. One strong scene does not a Man Booker win.

Levy’s claims were more justified than those of young American Ottessa Moshegh. Eileen, her slight calculating yarn, is a first-person narrative intended to shock in which an old woman looks back 50 years to her obsessive, foul-minded wayward self prior to escaping her home town, and those of Canadian-British David Szalay, whose All That Man Is is really a collection of ponderous stories, amounting to nine glimpses of the male experience.

Like it or not, and to be honest, few readers could seriously “love” The Sellout, it is a convenient, ready-to eat-novel true to our Kafkaesque times.

Madeleine Thien’s courageous title sounds somewhat optimistic. We may not have nothing, but we did not end up with as much as we could have had either she, or better still Macrae Burnet’s virtuoso menace, carried the night.

Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist

Paul Beatty (US), The Sellout (Oneworld)

Deborah Levy (UK), Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK), His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US), Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

David Szalay (Canada-UK), All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada), Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist

Paul Beatty (US), The Sellout (Oneworld

J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian), The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)

A.L. Kennedy (UK), Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)

Deborah Levy (UK), Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK), His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ian McGuire (UK), The North Water (Scribner UK)

David Means (US), Hystopia (Faber & Faber)

Wyl Menmuir (UK), The Many (Salt)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US), Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

Virginia Reeves (US), Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)

Elizabeth Strout (US), My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)

David Szalay (Canada-UK), All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada), Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)