What do we owe to a violent past? It’s a question that strikes at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s new novel, “White Tears,” despite its seemingly jocular and innocuous premise: Seth and Carter, two hipster audiophiles and Blues record collectors in Brooklyn, scrape together found audio of an unknown man in Washington Square Park and retouch it to create “undiscovered” prewar Delta Blues musician “Charlie Shaw.”
Carter, the trust fund recipient of a vast, generational fortune, first introduces Seth, the narrator, to his Blues obsession: “[Carter] listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.” From the start of Kunzru’s novel, race, music and power become inextricably linked, to disastrous consequences.
Seth and Carter’s fascination with “black music,” as well as their music production pursuits, are their means of overcorrecting societal ills, not only racial injustices against minorities, but also as their own advantage of fortune and privilege at the expense of others.
After graduating from college and moving to Brooklyn, Carter pours his endless wealth into studio equipment and obscure, 1920s era Blues recordings, culminating in the fabrication of Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues.” Carter commands Seth: “Make it dirty. Drown it in hiss. I want it to sound like a record that’s been sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years.” The boys’ re-creation and hubris push their overzealous adulation into full-on appropriation of Blues culture and “black music.” They distribute the “recording” on forums for Blues collectors, who are overjoyed in the appearance of a previously “undiscovered” gem, much to the delight of Seth and Carter.
For Kunzru, and, by extension, for his characters, there is something remarkable about the power of sound, and the miraculous reality of a record: “Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world. Marconi thought that if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to ancient times.”
Kunzru’s focus on records is not merely a convenient subsection of hipster culture but the crux of the novel itself. Each time a needle hits a record groove, it becomes an act of resurrection, blending the past and present. In truth, “White Tears” is a story about a haunting wrapped in the clothes of a biting satire.
Yet what begins as a sharp take on the grotesque nature of nostalgia and the follies of hipsterdom diverges sharply when Carter is found on the outskirts of the Bronx, savagely beaten into a coma.
This happens about a third of the way through the book. This is not without its pitfalls — after Carter’s beating, the story becomes unmoored with only the timid Seth (and Carter’s malcontent siblings) left to push the novel along. Too often the plot turns on coincidence, such as running into a mysterious record collector on the streets of Manhattan. Kunzru’s earnest and sympathetic portayal of Seth as a meek hanger-on and low-confidence audiophile is charming, though at times it can falter amid the lampoonish crowd of haute modern artists, business sharks and record snobs.
In the vein of a whodunit, Seth travels to the Mississippi Delta in search of the truth about “Charlie Shaw” and the reason for the assault on Carter. As the haunting gathers strength, and Seth becomes less certain of what is real and what is imagined, the novel becomes unexpectedly polyphonic, suddenly moving from Seth’s voice to that of other characters he meets, often without explanation.
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