by Kent Oswald

Prominent in the cover art of the paperback for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout lies the blurb that misled me. “A Comic Masterpiece,” pronounced NPR. Who wouldn’t want to read such a book as an antidote to these times?

Unfortunately, the disconnect between a desire to read an actual comic literary masterpiece and reading one is less than amusing. Blame rests with words, as it often does when talking literature.

A quick Google search made clear that a single critic, not the entire organization, is all that stands behind what Beatty’s publisher Picador suggests with the exuberant promise. Accordingly, I allowed hope to overrule long history of experience with similarly hyperbolic copy—even some I have written.

It is not for me to argue with Michael Schaub (or perhaps for any of the National Book Critics Circle folks who recognized The Sellout as 2016’s best novel); for him, Beatty’s work might well be a comic masterpiece. For me, his fourth novel is, regrettably, simply an engaging and interesting read.

A comic masterpiece? Shouldn’t there be an absolute measurement for that term?

Establishing that benchmark requires acceptance that the whole of the wordpair “comic masterpiece” is more and different than the sum of its parts. “Comic” serves as a verbal sinecure for a spectrum of ideas associated with amusement and is rarely synonymous with “hilarious.” “Masterpiece” is defined as both—although almost never at the same time—an artist’s ultimate expression and a high-quality work of a trained and recognized craftsperson.

Respite from the headlines and news analysis requires more than solid craftsmanship. I sought laugh-‘til-I-cry relief, not more cry-‘til-I-laugh despair.

Acknowledging these dichotomies does not ease the letdown. One convinces oneself there will be numerous milk-spew-out-the-nose moments to come in the next ten to 20 hours of living in a book (assuming one allows oneself to read while imbibing cow juice) only to realize an hour or so into the journey that one has settled in for a satirical, sardonic, occasionally surreal story from a master craftsman. Respite from the headlines and news analysis requires more than solid craftsmanship. I sought laugh-‘til-I-cry relief, not more cry-‘til-I-laugh despair.

As an aside to the whole search for CM definition, The Sellout may well be a masterpiece, but Beatty doesn’t seem to believe it is his best work. In an interview with The Guardian, held in the wake of his becoming the first American to win the Man Booker Prize, the author pondered the difficulties of its finding a British publisher, saying, “I think it’s a good book. I was like, ‘Why? What’s all that about?’ I would be uncomfortable guessing [why I couldn’t get a publishing deal].”

What it’s all about, perhaps, is that his work has Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a comic masterpiece ancestor. Racist idiocy, no matter how masterfully satirized, is not under any circumstances unstoppable belly laugh funny. This means we are taking much of the comedy out of the said comic masterpiece. The literary equation becomes two plus two equals three, or maybe giraffe or Hieronymous Bosch … just not necessarily four.

In an age that inspires serious researchers to fabricate fake news, it would be wonderful if we could have some absolutes to believe in: An absolute comic masterpiece, brilliant and, in fact LOL-level amusing, for instance. Instead, it turns out a variety of work is stuffed in the file cabinet of so-called comic masterpieces. There are the usual suspects like John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and every Thomas Berger novel ever written. In a bit of an upset, Erica Perl’s picture book, Ninety-three in My Family, which publisher Harry N. Abrams believes will be great for ages 2-8, qualifies in the CM pantheon, at least according to Library Journal. And how could it not be with its copywriter opining:

“What would life be like if you shared a house with your mom, dad, two sisters, a gerbil … and 87 other animals? A close look (in verse) at a furry, fuzzy, feathery and very funny family.”

Riffling through the cabinet also brings to the fore suggestions for fractured CMs. The London Observer reviewed Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as a “fat comic masterpiece.” Advertising copy heralds Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as a “comic, tragic masterpiece.” Back in 1800, Maria Edgeworth, reportedly an important figure in the history of education, had her unreliably narrated novella of Anglo-Irish gentry, Castle Rackrent, reviewed as a comic masterpiece on at least one occasion, as was Redmon O’Hanlon’s 1990 journal of Amazonian exploration In Trouble Again.

Maybe we should simply blame (and then ignore) literary critics and professors, the gatekeepers of the literary labelmaker. As a substitute, one might review the list The Guardian put together a few years ago on comic novels and try to figure out which they think are the real masterpieces and why. Or one could, with a few keywords and a few more keystrokes, delve into which absolutes tie together the opinions that Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana is a comic masterpiece in the same manner as Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel as well as Martin Amis’s reinvention of Rabelais’ opus in his own Money.

Is one doomed to fail when seeking to be assured of laughter while literaturing?

Yes, if The Sellout and what ensued is any indication. It is a good (maybe even great) book, but it certainly did not fulfill its promise of “comedic masterpiece.” While an engaging analysis of race and a demonstration of authorial risk-taking with its inflammatory ideas, it is not a study in hilarity.

Reading The Sellout taught me something else, though: the quest for a comic masterpiece is arduous—beset with greatness and incongruity. It is a journey leading both somewhere and nowhere, influenced by those whose opinions should be taken with a grain or, perhaps, a sea of salt. It is a noteworthy novel that never leaves one hopelessly subsumed by mirth, but is ultimately like the human condition: it will inspire hope and leave one still yearning for that hope’s fulfillment, which is a little more sad than funny, in a comic masterpiece sort of way.


Senior Staff Writer Kent Oswald, a lecturer on media studies at the City College of New York, has also been published in The LA Times Book Review, The US Open [tennis] Program, Cigar Aficionado, and also online only at Education Week, Six Sentences and The Ekphrastic Review. He tweets @Ready4Amy and @CupidAlleyChoco and instagrams @oswalke.