Friday, December 02, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

Here's an extract from Evelyn McDonnell's interview in the LA Review of Books with Paul Beatty, about the novel that has just won the Booker Prize
'The Sellout is set in an inner-city rural neighborhood called Dickens. Yes, that’s right, an inner-city rural hood. There are rodeos, ranches, and orchards amongst the donut shops, and shootouts. The narrator is a farmer who nurtures exotic fruits, along with killer weed. Call The Sellout a ghetto pastoral.
Or don’t.
“I try not to use that word at all,” Beatty says when asked if he cast The Sellout in the great literary tradition of the pastoral. “That was one of the hardest things about the book, trying to make that neighborhood feel real and a little bit fantastical at the same time; that was so hard to do.”
Beatty mixes the factual and the fanciful. The town name is made up (sly nods to the actual founder of Compton, Griffith Dickenson Compton, and to the father of social realist novels, Charles Dickens), and the setting may sound surreal, but in fact, Dickens is based on an actual Los Angeles area: Richland Farms, straight inside Compton. Yes, in the area made famous by Niggaz With Attitude and Kendrick Lamar — the town known worldwide as the home of gangs and gangsta rap — there are horses, goats, corn, and chickens. There really is a rodeo in Compton. Paul didn’t make that up.'
It is hard to read The Sellout without getting interested in where truth ends and fiction begins.  I found myself trying to get a clearer picture of Richland Farms via Google Earth - it's hard to detect any actual agriculture going on although maybe I just haven't looked down the right streets.  You don't need much space for the kind of city farms we have near where I'm writing this in London, at the equally bucolic sounding Holloway and Bethnal Green.  But it has to be said that even in the fictional version of Compton, it is only the novel's central character who maintains an actual working farm.  Whilst his neighbours have largely given up, he still rides a horse and has vegetable plots, fields that rotate from wheat to rice paddy, vines, cotton (symbolic, unpicked), unusually-shaped melons and satsumas so succulent 'they damn near peel themselves'.  At one point he recalls teenage years reading aloud from Kafka's Amerika with his girlfriend and there is something of that novel's surreal not-fully-urban version of an American city in the idea of Dickens.

A Google Earth view in the Richland Farms district of Compton

The Sellout may not be a pastoral but it is a book about place and the way districts change: the decline of Dickens from a prosperous independent city to a rundown district of LA is an echo of Compton, a once-desirable location where George and Barbara Bush lived in the late 1940s.  Critics have said that the novel resembles a set of comic routines and one of the best involves the idea of a kind of dating bureau for matching up 'sister cities' (the joke works less well with the British version 'twin towns').  Dickens is offered three possibilities: Ju├írez, the most violent city in the world, Kinshasa and Chernobyl.  But it is the disappearance of Dickens as a separate entity that hurts the novel's hero most, and his first protest against this is to paint and erect his own road sign.  Pleased with his handiwork, he feels 'like Michelangelo staring at the Sistine Chapel after four years of hard labor, like Banksy after spending six days searching the Internet for ideas to steal and three minutes of sidewalk vandalism to execute them.'  His increasingly outrageous local interventions as the novel progresses end with a trial on charges of reintroducing slavery and segregation.  Back at home, waiting for the verdict, he is watching the local weather on TV when he notices that it includes the word 'Dickens'.  He has literally managed to put his city back on the map.

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