Review: White Tears

The fabric of reality is by no means fixed when Hari Kunzru is in charge. His previous novel, Gods Without Men, unravels the thread of time after an autistic boy goes missing in the Mojave Desert--and out fall a cult leader, alien abductees, a washed-up rock star and Coyote, the trickster. With White Tears, Kunzru bends time again when two audiophiles happen upon a storied old blues track.

Seth is a socially inept weirdo. He builds his own sound equipment and wanders Manhattan, recording the ambient noises of the city. His only friend is Carter, a brooding record collector obsessed with black music. They are rising stars in the production game, having gained the interest of several high-profile musicians. On one of his voyeuristic outings to Washington Square Park, Seth unwittingly picks up a man's voice singing an entrancing blues song. In playback, Carter fixates on it, but Seth can't remember who was singing. In fact, "I couldn't understand how I hadn't heard it the first time, when the singer was in front of me."

With a little studio magic, they isolate the song, add a bit of old-timey patina and compress it into an MP3. Carter arbitrarily names it "Graveyard Blues" by Charlie Shaw, and posts it to collector forums as proof that they're the best in the industry. If they can pass off a recording from last week as a rare 1928 single from the type of niche label that LP aficionados covet, what can't these white boys do?

That act of hubris launches the duo into a dangerous slipstream, however, when a mysterious collector demands to know where they found the record--and what the B-side is. After exposing their ruse, Carter is seriously injured and hospitalized, and Seth must confront the possibility that Charlie Shaw isn't just a fabrication after all. "Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter."

A gifted surrealist, Kunzru twists together a gripping story about obsession, musicology, race and the pathology of white guilt. Seth soon finds that the only possibility of escaping the growing menace of Charlie Shaw and the sinister power that "Graveyard Blues" has over him may lie in exhuming the record's sordid past--one that becomes impossible to disentangle from Seth's own haunted memories. Kunzru blurs distinctions between several first-person narrators as Seth, trapped in an alarming fugue state, journeys deep into the South in hopes of finding absolution.

White Tears is a slippery, daring novel that raises timely and provocative questions about appropriation and reparations. Kunzru conjures a Faustian bargain for the boys who "really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness." But they hadn't heard the B-side. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Shelf Talker: Amid an increasingly distorted sense of reality, an old blues track haunts the two music nerds who thought they had created it.

Powered by: Xtenit