by Hari Kunzru
“Electricity is not digital. It does not come in discrete packets, but floods the air and flows through conductors and shoots from the hands of mad scientists in silent movies. If it is futuristic at all, it is a past version of the future, temperamental, unstable, half-alive.”
― Hari Kunzru, White Tears
― Hari Kunzru, White Tears
Hari Kunzru's novel tells of a mysterious recording found by Seth, a tech nerd, and his best friend, a handsome slacker named Carter Wallace, both young white men. While Carter's love of music is enabled by his standing as heir to a family fortune, Seth is from a somewhat lower social strata. Seth operates a studio with Carter and is obsessed with recording the errant sounds found around New York, which he does with a handset device by walking through the city. Carter is solely interested in music by black musicians of the twentieth century. and also bankrolls the music audio engineering business that Seth and Carter run together. One day, using recordings that Seth made of different people singing and playing music on the street, they create a song called the Graveyard Blues and upload it to the internet, attributing the song to Charlie Shaw, a name that Carter picks at random.
Seth—the brainy, awkward one—is annoyed by this arrogance, but the accompanying perks are too fun to pass up. Who wouldn’t want to make a bunch of money by playing music? “You seem to have a very high opinion of yourself,” Cornelius, Carter’s much more responsible brother, tells Seth. “Of your importance in the scheme of things.” Seth definitely lacks power, or confidence; rather than tell a crush how he feels when they’re at a party together, he ends up literally watching her have sex with another man. But when his life is upended by a shocking turn of events, he has no choice but to involve himself more directly in the story.
The shock is created when a record collector tells them something unnerving: Charlie Shaw is real, and he has a history that Seth and Carter want no part of. Soon after, Carter is found beaten unconscious in a dangerous Bronx neighborhood. Carter’s wealthy and powerful family bars Seth from coming to see Carter at the hospital. They also lock Seth out of his and Carter’s recording studio. Carter appears to be in a permanent coma. Seth tracks down Jim, who tells Seth of his own connection to Charlie Shaw. In the 1950s, Jim and his friend Chester Bly traveled to Tennessee and Mississippi in order to swindle African-Americans out of potentially valuable blues and jazz records. They eventually arrived at the house of Miss Alberta, Charlie Shaw’s sister. She possessed the only known copy of Shaw’s Graveyard Blues record. Bly stole the record after Alberta refused to sell it. Soon after, Bly died in a mysterious fire. Jim decided that Bly’s death must have been a type of cosmic comeuppance for his acts of cultural appropriation. In order to avoid similar danger, Jim sold all of his own records.
He and Leonie, Carter’s Boho artist sister, venture down South to solve the mystery of Shaw, who like many other obscure blues musicians known to us only through a song or two, exists on the margins of history. What they find takes on the texture of a ghost story, as Seth and Leonie bond in sweaty motels indistinguishable from each other, on the trail of a man who might not exist but might be implausibly real. “With each mile we are heading further into the past,” Kunzru writes. “This is what I made her understand, that night in her apartment. That we had to repeat something, to go back to meet the force that is reaching out towards us from history.”
“Shock of white hair, thick black eyeglasses that scanned as fashion until you checked the raincoat with the grubby collar, the unpleasant-looking scab on his forehead,” Kunzru writes. “Exactly who I did not want to meet. Very slowly, he raised an index finger and pointed to me, a gesture like firing a gun.” The man, who Seth only knows through his internet avatar, is sort of a decrepit weirdo. But what else could Seth have expected from someone who’s dedicated his life to compiling the arcane and unglamorous?
White Tears seems almost hallucinatory at times as the past and present blend together to create a nightmare for the duo. Seth’s rationality diminishes as the book paces toward its violent conclusion, with Kunzru’s prose rising to a hypnotic, entrancing level. The book cuts across time periods and perspectives, sometimes in the same chapter, as Seth falls further into the horror of the 20th century, for which Charlie is just a proxy. The mixture of disparate themes including the blues musical heritage, black cultural appropriation, and the threat of billion -dollar conglomerates provides for both an endlessly interesting and sometimes exciting novel.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.