White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Reviewed by Annabel

One thing you can say about Kunzru’s previous novels – they will always have interesting themes that connect with the zeitgeist of the day, from computer viruses in Transmissions to cults in the Californian desert in Gods Without Men. Increasingly, they include ghostly echoes from the past coming back to haunt the protagonists, like former political activist Mike in My Revolutions. White Tears has both defining tropes.

The initial thrust of White Tears concerns the music industry, particularly technological advances that have enabled new ways of working for musicians and producers, (David Byrne’s How Music Works explains this changing world well if you’re interested). Contrasting against this modern theme is something more ancient: the search for authenticity in music, its origins and how it can be preserved for posterity.

These musical themes are woven into a composition in which our narrator Seth plays the continuo, the backbone against which two other subjects entwine – Seth’s friend and colleague Carter is one, and the other an old blues song which begins:

Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.

Seth and Carter are unlikely partners in business, but they’re thrown together at college by a shared love of music. When they meet, Seth is into recording street sounds – and only likes new music:

Old songs made me feel nervous. Also old recordings. I wanted to be one hundred percent forward-facing, moving into tomorrow at top speed. I’d grown up listening to a lot of seventies progressive rock, songs about space travel and chivalry with frequent changes of time-signature and bombastic effects. […] I made a run for it, away from human history and its dark places, into techno, the aural city on the hill.  

Carter, who looks like a “hipster Jesus” is Seth’s musical opposite:

Over the next weeks and months, Carter taught me to worship – it’s not too strong a word – what he worshipped. He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic that anything made by white people.

Carter collects old 78rpm shellac blues records, listened to with valve amps to get the warm sound. Money is no object in his hi-fi set-up for Carter comes from a rich family. Seth is converted by the music, and when Carter wants to set them both up as record producers with a studio, they find themselves in demand with Seth as the technological genius of the pair.

It was all going so well – then, one day, Carter hears one of Seth’s tapes. He’d been recording near the chess tables in Washington Square and he captures a voice singing the blues song above. Carter becomes obsessed by the track – believing it to be from a lost recording by poor blues singer Charlie Shaw. If anyone could track down the original, it’d be worth a fortune.

The song takes over their lives when, after mixing the tape to make it sound “authentic”, Carter shares it online. When Carter’s mental stability begins to descend into a personal nightmare, Seth finds himself destitute, thrown out of the partnership by Carter’s family. The song won’t leave him either, it now has a life of its own and he must find its source to bury the ghost of Charlie Shaw that Carter has raised.

White Tears is a novel that can be read on many levels, the shallowest being a psychological drama, with a Faustian premise that reminds one of the story that blues legend Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroad and sold his soul for success. However, as you delve deeper you find that Kunzru is questioning many issues – not least, to quote from the book’s blurb, “the theft of black music and black lives.”

In the second half of the novel, Kunzru often flashes back to the end of the blues era – a white record collector travels through the south buying up original discs for mere cents, cheating the poorest folk yet again. Ironically, although we can’t approve of their methods, these collectors effectively saved these recordings for posterity, as Kunzru acknowledges in a fascinating discussion with Icelandic author Sjón here.

The issues of the cultural appropriation of the blues are so complex – I have the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton to thank for introducing me to the form, and the Blues Brothers for casting so many blues heroes in the film which, in turn, led me to discover the historic blues of Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy et al. As music fans and readers, we often work backwards to discover the influencers of our contemporary heroes. It’s the same whether you’re a fan or performer – as Keith Richards said:

Everybody starts by imitating their heroes. For me it was Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters.

Modern blues can be regarded as a musical genre, but does it have its own authenticity?  It has evolved from the original form, diverging to become something else, often seated in the virtuosity of the musicians playing it. Modern blues practitioners still recognise and pay homage to their influences, but the form has lost the simplicity and emotional rawness derived from the poverty, suffering and weight of history affecting those original blues singers. This was recognised decades ago, and crystallised in a teasing song on the Bonzo’s 1968 album that Viv Stanshall wrote: Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?, which asks whether this is a hypocritical act.

I’ve diverged from discussing the book rather, but White Tears did make me think deeply about my own experience of blues music – yours may be completely different.

Seth, the book’s narrator, is of course, not born when the old blues recordings were made. He goes on his own musical journey in the novel. It’s a journey of two halves; the first is educational, the second is emotional, linked by a bridging section. We share this experience in Kunzru’s enigmatic novel, one I enjoyed immensely.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Hari Kunzru, White Tears (Hamish Hamilton, 2017). 978-024127295, 288pp.,  hardback.

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