A sharp, blistering satire about a black man who brings back slavery to America doesn’t sound like rich pickings for belly laughs. But step forward Paul Beatty, a man who has captured modern life and all its discontents in rollicking style in The Sellout. It’s this year’s Man Booker 2016 winner, and Beatty was warmly received as the first American to take the accolade plus a £50,000 cheque. It’s pretty nice work for someone who was heavily persuaded into writing the novel and who will no doubt go down in Booker history as declaring ‘I hate writing’ in his acceptance speech.
The Sellout’s provocative premise works thanks to its barrage of comic asides and cultural reflections, all done at blinding pace. We meet a character known only for his surname ‘Me’, who lives on the outskirts of a mainly black and Latino area of California before it is wiped off the map. In a bid to restore his hometown he does the unthinkable and reinstates segregation. In our current era of Black Lives Matter, it’s no surprise then that The Sellout has hit a nerve.
Before the Man Booker 2016 announcement, the prize winner was anyone’s guess. Didn’t immediately recognise the names on the shortlist? You weren’t alone – the absence of big name nominees almost became the prize’s main talking point. In fact, it gave our most prestigious literary prize a buzzword – ‘freshness’. Yes, it’s a hooray for the little man, so used to getting waylaid by the Ian McEwans of this world.
Only Deborah Levy had appeared before, the previous time in 2012 for Swimming Home. This time, Levy’s Hot Milk had her in the running; a richly layered tale, full of mythical Medusas, of a mother and daughter’s relationship feeling the heat under the Spanish sun. Another reason for many to cheer was the lack of doorstop novels – excepting Madeleine Thien’s ambitious tome Do Not Say We Have Nothing which spans decades of Chinese history (and was the bookies’ favourite), this year’s crop was decidedly smaller and perhaps therefore a little less intimidating. The quality, however, was undiminished.
Critics applauded their outward looking themes, as well as the inclusion of more approachable genres such as Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut Eileen: a noirish psychological thriller set in New England about a woman’s hum-drum life pushed to the extreme. While the ambitious approach of the individual-but-linked stories in All That Man Is made David Szalay an admirable contender.
In many ways, the real winner of this year’s Man Booker is Graham Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Dubbed ‘the people’s choice’ it has outstripped the rest of the field in terms of sales. Kindle Store reported a 319% increase in sales on the month following the shortlist announcement. Again, since crime is not normally a shoo-in for a literary prize, book clubs up and down the country happily reported racing through the story of a Scotsman tried for murder. Played out like a gripping true life-style crime, it’s not so much a ‘whodunit’ but a ‘whydunit’.
All in all, with no ‘predictable’ names on the shortlist, it made guessing the Man Booker winner a whole lot less, well, predictable. And many hope that, ultimately, a more open shortlist and a winner in The Sellout might just opened the door to more daring and diverse storytelling.