In Hari Kunzru’s thrilling and graceful White Tears, a meditation on race and music, we begin with the entitlement of record collecting and end in a bloody ghost story. The book you begin to read is not the book you end with—in the most delectable sense.
Kunzru plants early the seeds of unraveling narrative as he introduces the neuroses of the novel’s main narrator, Seth. Terrified by the sounds of old and obsessed with new recordings, Seth is always looking forward. Carter, Seth’s best and only friend, is always looking backward. The two men forge a friendship in their love of recorded sound, working together to produce an authentic sound like that of the blues musicians they love so well. Between these painstaking efforts, Carter obsesses over collecting extremely obscure records, some dating to the 1930s. Through his obsession, Carter communicates the idea that there is a purer experience to be obtained by the truly devoted–if one makes the time, maintains the interest, and importantly, has the money to fund such devotion.
But what right does the collector have to music? Kunzru never poses this question outright, but gets at it in Seth’s quick and guilty admission of his college rasta phase. He then returns to the question via a story about a 1940s record collector named Charles Bly, who drives around the South, buying up obscure recordings on the cheap to add to his hoard. Bly isn’t interested in the music as music, but in posessing it. More than merely owning the music, he wants it to be exclusively his.
Possession plays a major role in Kunzru’s tale. It’s first defined as ownership of a man’s life, of fate, of destiny, of a man bonded to slavery, and the continual renewal of that slavery throughout history. Eventually, it comes to mean ownership in the demonic sense of possession, and here it is described in visceral and uncomfortable beauty, with a peeled back mouth and “cracked jaws.”
Kunzru’s beautiful and innovative prose unfolds like a mad series of lines that read like a beautiful ramble. On occassion, his technical jargon of the recording industry reduce recordings to a clinical account of serial numbers and dates.This is the language of the collector, the bankroller, the man behind the curtain who makes the music happen because he is funding it–and the language of this man is held in sharp contrast with the visceral language of feeling and struggle, the deep gut language of the blues.
Commoditizing the music allows a disconnect from the people of the music: “The names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about them. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness… Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.”
The boundary line between sense and order gives way to insanity, the boundary line between the living and the dead begin to blur–and as time itself begins to unravel, Kunzru keeps the reader in rapt sway with his gorgeous prose. But he also repeatedly offers a reminder that this all has happened already, that everything has happened before. Seth’s early interest and fear in the sound-memory of places underpins the terrible inevitability of White Guilt. Echoes of the past resonate forever into the future. The past never goes away. History repeats itself, a needle skipping on a track, and we are stuck forever in that groove.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
March 14, 2017
Hari Kunzru is the author of five books, which have been translated into multiple languages: The Impressionist (2002), Transmission (2004), My Revolutions (2007), Gods Without Men (2011), and the story collection, Noise (2006). He is also the Deputy President of English PEN, a patron of the Refugee Council and a member of the editorial board of Mute magazine.
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