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.
Part of this is certainly intentional, as Kunzru wants the reader to be as uncertain as the characters are of their identity and fate as the early Delta Blues musicians were: "They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn't just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost."
The palpable "loss" of these musicians to the horrors of Jim Crow, forced labor, lynching and all around oppression compared with the mega-rich who now greedily snap up their rare and valuable remnants creates the negative space that Kunzru operates in. The past and its repercussions are never really past, and the causes of disparity, as allegory, become a violent retribution once free in the form of the "faked" record of Charlie Shaw singing his "Graveyard Blues."
"White Tears" is Kunru's fifth novel, most of which are as far ranging in scope and in their fluidity of time, as in "Gods Without Men," which spans 200 years and several continents. A tidy ending to "White Tears" comes as a surprise after the muddled and perplexing second act, detracting from some of the powerful social commentary wrapped up in Seth's sojourn to Mississippi.
The phrase "white tears," beyond the novel's title, is a colloquial and charged term used to describe when white people believe themselves to have been disadvantaged because of their skin color (such as losing out in cases of affirmative action in college admissions or with companies that emphasize minority hiring). In his novel, Kunzru walks a fine and admirable line of writing a story that never devolves into moralizing, condescension or abject preaching. The violence, misfortune and hubris that lead to the novel's eventual "white tears" feels at once justified, horrific and terribly unavoidable. Ultimately, as Seth notes, "The present is dry, but add reverb and you can hear time reverse its flow, slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster…. Distance can create longing. It can open up the gap into which all must fall."
Broida's work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Economist, among other publications. He lives in Baltimore.