By Paul Beatty
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I’d like to talk about allusions.
An allusion, not to be confused with an illusion, is an implied reference to something else. It is often, but not exclusively, used to describe artistic allusion: the implicit or unstated gesturing, within one work of art, at another work of art. But there are all kinds of allusions: cultural, historical, religious. When you describe a task as Sisyphean, you are making an allusion. When you say someone has the patience of Job, you are making an allusion. When you describe something as your kryptonite, or compare it to the Kobayashi Maru, or call something your white whale, you are making an allusion.
Allusions are very useful. Because they call to mind a shared cultural touchstone, they allow you, essentially, to flesh out an entire context with very little effort. If I make a joke: “To snack or not to snack – that is the question”, you know right away that I am referencing Hamlet. You know that Hamlet is asking his famous question about existence, about the nature of death and the meaning of life, whereas I am merely wondering whether to have a snack. You juxtapose the weightiness of his question against my triviality, and get the joke: I’m over-worrying about snacking.
It’s very powerful. In a world without Hamlet, I would have had to enumerate the levels of my agonizing to you: the wanting a snack, the not wanting to want a snack, my sense of genuine dilemma along with my meta-sense that my dilemma is minor in the grand scale of things, my own awareness of my ridiculousness and my awareness that you are also aware. Using an allusion, I can achieve all this complexity in a single phrase.
The reason this works is because we both know Hamlet. If we didn’t both know Hamlet – know it instantly – I would just be a person acting weird about snacks.
That’s the thing with allusions: the pay-off can be huge, but your audience has to get the reference. And cultural is local, both in space and in time. As anyone who has ever read Vergil will tell you, what the Romans considered obvious allusions would blow right by 99% of the reading public now. Likewise, we in the West tend to consider the Bible safe ground for allusions, but that’s awfully provincial of us. And popular culture, of course, is saturating but over in the blink of an eye (there are a lot of authors who, in about twenty years, are going to regret mentioning Kim Kardashian in their books). In fact, you can often date a piece of work by the cultural allusions the author seems to think everyone will get. Allusions require us to understand the same references, to live in the same world. The further apart our worlds are, the less likely we are to be able to communicate with each other this way.
All artists live with this tension when they deploy allusion: some people will get it, and some won’t. You need to balance the needs of the work with the likely scope of your audience. And, of course, for the audience, allusions are sort of terrifying. The idea that some crucial piece of meaning, some aspect or dimension of the work in which you are investing your time and energy might be lost to you, not through any fault of your own, but simply because you have not happened to encounter some other piece of culture? It doesn’t feel fair.
Which brings me to Paul Beatty.
‘The Sellout’ is Beatty’s fourth novel, but the first that I have read. It won the Man Booker (side note: those Man Booker judges really are not fucking around). It is the story of Bonbon, a young Black man raised in Dickens California, a low-income high-crime neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. When Dickens is suddenly, inexplicably, dis-incorporated, Bonbon hatches a scheme to get his town back on the map: he will re-segregate it.
Beatty’s prose is among the most densely allusive prose I’ve ever encountered. There might be readers who are culturally informed enough to take in the full scope of the web of references that Beatty is constructing – I am not that reader. Which means that reading his work requires, on my part, a sort of surrender: the knowledge that I will not, cannot, comprehend the entirety of his project.
It’s daunting, but, in Beatty’s case, enormously worth it. Beatty’s prose is so fast, so sharp, so witty, that to grasp even a fraction is joyful. I was laughing out loud by page 13, when Bonbon describes a scheme he has to open a shop to translate personal mottos into Latin. He imagines people from Dickens coming to him for translation, so that they can get their mantras tattooed on themselves without fear:
“If it’s true that one’s body is one’s temple, I could make good money. Open up a little shop on the boulevard and have a long line of tattooed customers who’ve transformed themselves into nondenominational places of worship: ankhs, sankofas, and crucifixes fighting for abdominal space with Aztec sun gods and one-star Star of David galaxies. Chinese characters running down shaved calves and spinal columns. Sinological shout-outs to dead loved ones that they think means “Rest in peace, Grandma Beverly,” but in reality reads “No tickee! No Bilateral Trade Agreement!” Man, it’d be a goldmine…When business is slow, they’ll come by to show me my handiwork. The olde English lettering glistening in the streetlight, its orthodoxy parsed on their sweaty tank- and tube-topped musculatures. Money talks, bullshit walks…Pecunia sermo, somnium ambulo. Dative and accusative clauses burnished onto their jugulars, there’s something special about having the language of science and romance surf the tidal waves of a homegirl’s body fat. Strictly dickly…Austerus verpa. The shaky noun declension that would ticker-tape across their foreheads would be the closest most of them ever get to being white, to reading white. Crip up or grip up…Criptum vexo vel carpo vex. It’s nonessential essentialism.” (p.13)
Did you catch all that? No? How could you? The thing is, it’s funny anyway. The whole book is like that: funny, nimble, dense. Blink and you’ll miss something, but even if you keep your eyes peeled the whole time, you’ll still miss something because Beatty is moving too fast for you.
At a certain point, you just need to decide whether you’re willing to read a book knowing you won’t understand a lot of it. That there are in-jokes that will go right over your head, and that some of them might be important. It’s hard.
But it’s worth it. It’s worth is because Beatty specifically is worth it, but it’s also worth it because that’s the only way to grow. If you only read authors you understood entirely, you’d never learn anything new. In general, the less challenging a work is, the less you learn from it. And the problem tends to compound itself: the more distance between your own experience and the scope of a novel, the less you will understand. The less you understand, the less likely you are to put in the effort to finish the novel, and, therefore, the more you become confined to your own experience.
Wading into someone else’s allusions is a good way to see the world through their eyes. And their world will necessarily be different than yours – that’s the whole point. If it weren’t, you’d have imagined the book yourself.
I couldn’t have imagined ‘The Sellout’, not with all the time in the world and a gun to my head. And books like that, books you couldn’t have imagined and don’t fully understand, those are the best books, in my opinion. Even if you don’t get every joke, don’t know every reference, those are the books that make your world bigger.
And bigger worlds are better, I think.