Eating The Postmodern Novel

The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty


I had read Beatty’s latest, The Sellout, a few months ago and didn’t much care for it. When this happens, I usually ask, “What’s wrong with me? What did I miss?” I did miss something, but I’ll sort that out in a sec. I’m afraid, dear reader, that I find Beatty’s work less than enthralling. His humor is mean-spirited, his characterizations are caricatures, and his view of the world via his stories childishly cynical. What Beatty does best, though, is to  view American culture – and sharply.

The story here – and it’s not really a story, told in postmodern style, the characters fumble through life and circumstance as a device to comment on society – has a kid, Gunnar Kaufman, moving to a new L.A. neighborhood and coping with life there. That’s it. That’s the story. Beatty has him become a basketball star, yet there’s no sense of the game where. And to top that, he becomes some sort of cultural messiah, with no sense of the role played out nor the “masses” need for him in particular to play that role.

Beatty’s gift is probably not fiction. With his sharp eye on culture, black culture in particular, he should take a few tips from Ta-Nehisi Coates and focus on real life.


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Good Prose, No Win Satire


The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

You might be in the den with some pals waiting for the Super Bowl to begin, and someone cracks a joke, then another. Then another. And you think, “Jokes and satire can’t be all that hard; maybe I could do a stand-up act, or write a satirical book.” So weeks later, it’s midnight and your idea for a novel full of witty things is a complete bust.
This, in a nutshell, is why Paul Beatty’s novel fails to complete its mission. More on that in a minute.
The author’s ambitious project here is intended to satirize nearly everyone and every institution in American life, and satirize he does. His story is of a young black man who is trying to live up to his father’s expectations as an understudy “nigger whisperer.,” i.e., someone who can calm even the most rambunctious denizens of Dickens, a black community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The son isn’t much good at following in his father’s footsteps, so he determines to re-segregate Dickens. In the process one of his friends, Hominy Jenkins, aspires to be the young man’s slave and he sets out to accomplish that. So this is pretty much the story.


The author has apparently decided, however, that he doesn’t need much of a story; his project is to leapfrog here and there to point out the foibles of whites through the coping mechanisms of Dickens’ black community. He easily accomplishes this, but at the expense of both races’ human nature. The “gets” are easy here; the old man’s network of ad hoc clients has abandoned him and the son isn’t anywhere near as talented as his dad at that whispering thing. So he reels from pillar to post in his quest to re-segregate Dickens and manages to be dragged before the U.S. Supreme Court for his effort.
The problem here isn’t that Beatty’s intent isn’t clear enough; rather, he sets up a mild desegregation meant to feed us and inform a precise servitude. The main issue is that his satire isn’t often funny; in fact it’s often mean spirited, with no obvious saving grace. Still, when he does manage to be amusing, his schtick is a downright thigh-slapper.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars


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Wanna Satire?

Are you sitting there this Labor Day weekend wishing you could be the next Mark Twain? The reincarnation of Kurt Vonnegut? Well, you need to know about satire:

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the contextof contemporary politics and other topical issues.

It's been said that humor is a corrective social device – it presents imaginary or exaggerated situations that poke at falsity, whether in an individual's ego, or in the more collective social sense, but it does so without being seen as a diatribe or personal attack. In this way, for instance, a supremely vain person will see him/herself in a joke or witticism, will then consider his/her own behavior, and hopefully moderate it. 

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Politics is a fertile field for correction through satire, and Jon Stewart is possibly the best at it today. Forget for a few moments which side of today's ideological divide you fall on, and pay attention to how Stewart deals with satire in this interview.


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Being Funny and Writing Funny

I read something today by a respected journalist about his early career. He tried to write funny stuff, he said, but you can't be funny yourself in journalism – you have to collect humorous data and let the data be funny.

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I disagree, even though I'm not sure humor is the right approach to journalism. He's right, though, in that you have to have some serious funny in you if you're going to try to write witty journalistic pieces without humorous information. 

Guess the guy knew his limits and didn't kid himself about that.


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The Last Plaint on Family

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Okay, I admit I made the preceding posts on family a bit too dramatic. I did it first to try and generate emotion, and then to point the way to art from those perhaps toxic emotions.

As the post title suggests, my family life wasn't the best in the world. We all seem to have overdeveloped expectations of family during childhood, and then when we're older, we compensate by being overly critical of those who bear similar seed. But, even later, if we're not too headstrong, we forgive and settle in at some appropriate emotional distance from one another. 

As for myself, it was tough; I was raised in a Southern family: bigoted, undemonstrative, often cruel in passive ways, though I'm betting none among them would admit to any of this. It took me years to break the family bonds and be the person I really am, and it wasn't easy. 

The one thing that was both my familial salvation and its albatross was humor. As I wrote earlier, nothing in family is clean-cut; there's a virtually un-sortable mixture of good and bad. When I finally realized that family was bobbing too near the surface of my writing, I took a deep breath and wrote a family history. From that came a series of memoir/essays on members of my family. 

Tough. Really tough. I had to calm the anger many times, set myself even further away from the memories. But that's where the humor came in. I chose to dwell on my famiy's foibles, not as flaws, but as defining individual characteristics, and the most forgiving way of doing that is throough humor. In that way, I could give these people, who still seem so close to me, yet so far from whom I am, an ample measure of human dignity.

I hope at the end of the day, you'll see family that way in your writing, too.


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