recommending you a book and then getting a whole poast of thoughts is the most satisfying thing I can imagine

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I think “humor renders ambiguous everything it touches” is one of the most profound quotes I’ve read about “comedy”. To me, it’s like the respite between sprints. A comedian and a politician can comment on the same topic and, effectively, make the same points - yet it be received completely differently. And I suppose this has to do, in part, with the arena in which said comments are made. Some arenas are designated, by society, for fighting; while others are designated for truces (i.e., sporting events, music halls, and (used to be) comedy shows). There are books and journals written about the societal implications of “race” and ethnicity so I won’t minimize those topics but to Beatty’s point - I was always amused when rich and powerful black people would condemn young black men for saying a word; and completely ignore structural impediments, and avoid making an effort to instruct them how to get in the positions they held.. and then you drill down and you realize that the steps many of these individuals took are complex, and at points, contradict the public persona or story they tell their set demographic. Which brings me to the point that culture is in large part about the stories we tell ourselves. There’s an African proverb which says “until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”. Sometimes the hunter has a different color than you and sometime they’re the same color... and sometimes we like telling ourselves fairy tales because they pacify us or others; and avoid the elephant in the room. So I think part of the genius of people like this is that they eject themselves from the hunter x hunted dynamic and act as an observer. The comic creates his own space, outside of the gladiators arena, and points out the absurdities taking place within it - giving the combatants a respite from battle and an opportunity, as Beatty says, to “rehumanize ourselves” and “assert your intellectual equality”.

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Feb 12Liked by Mills Baker

Does nominative determinism work on books? If so "The Sellout" might be the greatest title

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Feb 12·edited Feb 12Liked by Mills Baker

"That’s the difference between most oppressed peoples of the world and American blacks. They vow never to forget, and we want everything expunged from our record, sealed and filed away for eternity."

I understand this desire to forget.

Pain, trauma, injustice—including that which was justified and weaponized by the state—will never be easy to hold space for. As an individual, I don't want to live in the suffocating shadow of certain pains and humiliations that I've experienced. And those are just single episodes lobbed at me by hurting people, not centuries of sanctioned abuse, often justified by identity-driven lies.

There's also a grave danger in forgetting. In forgetting the historical acts and facts of injustice, we miss that wide angle view showing a steady march toward justice. In forgetting, we risk repeating the same sins—though perhaps with different actors in their next iteration. We also miss out on old stories of hope and grit. A forgetful people doesn't need to remember the perseverance of Tubman or courage of Douglass.


There's so much treasure in this essay it is hard to know where to comment.

I hadn't heard of The Sellout before this, thank you! Just put it on hold at my local library.

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Feb 14Liked by Mills Baker

Man, Kundera linking humour to the invention of the novel is classic Kundera. It describes the power of the novel so well, but I also think about the shape of Irish conversation, old as the hills, sly and effacing and also rendering ambiguous everything it touches. And, I’m sure, most other ancient cultures with which I am less familiar.

I think I read _The Sellout_ in a new-parent fugue, and I’m thinking it’s probably time for a reread. I remember enjoying it a lot but I didn’t retain enough.

In recent years I’ve become more guilty of trying to ascribe "authorial intent" to novels I read. Not sure if this is a sign of worse novels (frequently), or a worsening reader (almost certainly). “What is she saying, with this? Why did she do that to that character? Does she think this?”

In my youth I read almost exclusively blackly comic novels where the humour spread a kind of filament barrier between the author and the text. Martin Amis, etc. As you observe above, the impossibility of separating the author’s opinion from what might simply be funny gives a protection to the author, but also to the text. So many of the novels I’ve read from the last fews years have very clear moral points to make, products of the concerns of online culture. Then you read something truly good (like Rachel Cusk), and those questions of intent just kind of melt away. And yet something enters you by osmosis.

As I grew older I read fewer of these kinds of novels. Maybe I thought I was outgrowing them, maybe there are fewer of them around. I think a lot of people saw/see these novels as products of comfortable, white, first-world perspective. So _The Sellout_ is an excellent example of the freedoms of humour outside of the dominant perspective.

A few weeks ago I read _O Caledonia_ by Elspeth Barker, published in the early ‘90s. A Scottish Highlands account of a girl’s sad and lonely childhood. Her family hates her. She suffers an endless series of small and large misfortunes. In the end she is pointlessly murdered (foretold on the first page), then buried and forgotten by her awful parents. It was an exhilarating and deeply moving and very funny read. So beautifully written, and very nostalgic, a true late-20th C novel. Why did the author do these things to this kid? Why make so much of it funny? Novels of often bad people doing often bad things informed my moral development to a ridiculous degree. It’s difficult to explain this clearly. You find your humanity in the reason that you laugh, in awareness of absurdity, in feeling for imperfect people.

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Feb 12·edited Feb 12Liked by Mills Baker

Respect to Paul Beatty for resisting the label of "satirist." In accepting that label, he would have made it far easier for many folks to categorize, shelve, and dismiss his work.

It's wonderful to read about (I haven't read the book yet) the amount of humor in The Sellout. Humor is honest. You either laughed or you didn't.

Just the other day our dog ran headfirst into the door. I laughed. My daughter said, "Dad, that's not funny." To which I replied, "It's hard to make the case that it wasn't funny when someone is laughing."

Some of the best jokes or comedic situations push the boundary of truth in one direction or the other. Maybe they are laced with a thread of reality that is generally hard to talk about, and that joke provides a unifying release valve—we're glad someone finally said it. (Dave Chappelle) Or—pressing hard in the other direction—they are so patently devoid of truth that we are tickled by the absurdity. (Seinfeld) But my favorite jokes do both at the same time: a thread of truth, but then laced with absurdity or awkwardness. (Tig Nataro's famous cancer stand up set.)

"But I am desperate to know how most readers —and again, especially white readers— took this passage..."

I thought the passage was funny. Why? Because I've misused plethora. And heard other people do the same. El Guapo in The Three Amigos said it wrong too. Skillfully highlighting the misuse of words can be funny thing. The fact that the black protagonist narrator approached it through a hyper-racialized lens doesn't change that universally funny truth.

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