Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, reviewed.

An Unsettling Novel That Untangles the Razor Wire of Appropriation

An Unsettling Novel That Untangles the Razor Wire of Appropriation

Reading between the lines.
March 20 2017 9:30 AM

In Search of Lost Time

The hipsters at the center of Hari Kunzru’s White Tears invent an ancient black bluesman—but is he real after all?

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Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Ingram Publishing, Panptys, MrsWilkins/iStock.

Perhaps you have met a guy like Carter Wallace. Carter—the best friend of Seth, the narrator of Hari Kunzru’s supremely unsettling sixth novel, White Tearsis a recognizable type: a collector. He’s a trust-fund baby with blond dreadlocks and tattoos, one of the cool kids at the liberal arts college in upstate New York where he and Seth first meet. Carter is a DJ, but over time his musical obsessions become increasingly un-party-friendly. “He listened exclusively to black music,” Seth explains, “because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if ‘white people’ were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn’t belong.” Eventually, Carter’s preoccupation with authenticity leads him to reject the digital (“out of touch with the human body”) and embrace vinyl.

Laura Miller Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Follow her on Twitter.

By the time the two friends have graduated and relocated to New York City, he likes to sit on the floor in his room next to a 78-rpm turntable, listening to his hard-won collection of “prewar blues recordings, lone guitarists playing strange abstract figures, scraping the strings with knives and bottlenecks and singing in cracked, elemental voices about trouble and loss.” Seth, pathetically grateful to have hitched his nerdy wagon to a star as cool as Carter’s, shares his friend’s taste, if not his fanatical purism. “We knew we didn’t own it,” he says of black music, “a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge.” The novel’s title—a Twitter-ish jeer better suited to a coffee mug—doesn’t do justice to the intricate razor wire it untangles.

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Seth and Carter launch a boutique recording studio that specializes in reproducing the sound of analog recordings for contemporary musicians. Their work, and Carter’s collecting, represents a consuming but conveniently selective nostalgia, much as Carter’s artist sister, Leonie (on whom Seth has a hopeless crush), inhabits a Tribeca loft that’s a grungy “facsimile, a simulation of the kind of place other artists lived in, many stops away in the outer boroughs”—only with a doorman, a marble lobby, and a view of the Hudson River. As with many rich would-be bohemians, Carter and Leonie provide plenty of amenities for their hangers-on, as long as everyone tacitly agrees never to point out how much it all must cost and who’s paying for it—not that the Wallaces themselves, heirs to a family concern with tentacles in war contracting and correctional facilities, ever forget who’s calling the shots. One of the small pleasures of this novel is the precise way Kunzru etches the awkward parameters entailed in befriending the very rich.

Kunzru is one of the most consistently imaginative, observant, and versatile novelists working today. In 2004’s Transmission, a naïve Indian computer programmer immigrates to Silicon Valley in search of a hedonistic version of the American Dream and ends up vengefully taking down global computer networks with a virus. My Revolutions (2008) is told from the perspective of a former ’60s Weather Underground–style radical living under a false name, threatened with unmasking by a documentarian. Gods Without Men (2012) recounts a mysterious disappearance among a group of New Age stragglers and UFO seekers in the Southwest. As diverse as these premises are, his novels share a suave yet searching confidence and a fascination with how technology, so often viewed as a catalyst of the future, tends to dig up the unresolved messes of our past.

There is no spookier example of this in Kunzru’s eyes than the power of sound recording. White Tears opens with Seth’s recollection of having once heard a field recording of a woman singing on her porch: “You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets.” A sound recording, particularly an old one, can make the past seem eerily present and at the same time underscore how irretrievable it is. It is a kind of haunting, layering what has been lost over what soon will be.

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Seth, a curiously null personality, perplexes the other characters in the novel. Carter’s family deems him a nonentity and can’t fathom what he wants or why Carter keeps him around. But Seth, as Carter instinctively recognizes, has an exquisite ear. He is a born receptor, a sort of human microphone. In his adolescence he suffered a nervous breakdown during which he became convinced that he could “hear the past, the ambience of the room as it had been ten years previously, then twenty years, then fifty.” Living in New York, he likes to roam the city, discreetly recording everything and everyone he encounters. Listening to his recordings later on Carter’s $1,000 headphones, he notices all the things he missed when they were actually happening.

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During one of these forays, Seth watches a man win a chess match in Washington Square Park and catches him singing a snatch of blues in celebration, a line or two about wanting to buy a graveyard to bury his enemies in. When he gets back to the apartment and he shares with Carter, the two of them learn, to Seth’s astonishment, that he’s actually recorded the full song. Carter is transfixed. Over Seth’s protests (he finds the song ominous), Carter scours the rest of the street recordings, discovering a passage of someone playing a guitar that Seth recorded in another park on a different day. The two match perfectly. The roommates pair the tracks with an overlay of hiss and crackle until it sounds like an old 78, “the kind of recording that only exists in one poor copy, a thread on which time and memory hang.” They invent a name for this fabricated bluesman—Charlie Shaw—and post the file online.

To their astonishment, another collector messages them, insisting that he heard the same recording, just once, decades ago, and that Charlie Shaw was a real musician. Either the two aficionados have unleashed unseen forces or Seth is losing it again: White Tears encourages the former interpretation, but the latter works, too. Carter falls victim to a brutal attack while wandering, inexplicably, in the Bronx. Seth’s quest to figure out what’s going on becomes entangled with the fate of another collector, who tells him, “I know your story. It’s just like mine. I was the sidekick, just like you.” In the 1950s, he traveled south with a man of reptilian acquisitiveness, the two of them going from house to house cajoling—and if necessary bullying—old records out of the residents for a dime apiece. In White Tears, blues record collectors are white men whose souls have been eaten away by their obsession with authenticity. The human suffering behind the music is merely the circumstance that makes it valuable.

The novel becomes increasingly fractured. Seth drifts loose in time, rambling from one decade to another as easily as he once road his bike from the East Village to Chelsea. Homeless, he may be fighting off a curse, or possessed by a wrathful spirit, or simply coming apart at the seams. He learns what it is like to be so powerless that “something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened. For you, it happened, but somehow, they remember it differently.” Whatever, exactly, is happening, Kunzru creates the overwhelming sense that White Tears is spiraling down into the shadowy heart of the matter, to the poisoned center of America’s past. The novel’s momentum is irresistible. Call it a ghost story or a rumination on art, possession and responsibility—or both—it has all the force of a truth that can be neither denied nor buried—at least not for long.

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White Tears by Hari Kunzru. Knopf.