IN MARCH THIS year, the novelist Hari Kunzru wrote about his road trip from New York to West Texas. In his essay in The Guardian, the journey takes a backseat as the music of the Mississippi propels the story forward. Kunzru writes: ‘If I say it’s almost impossible to hear the blues now, that’s not because it’s unavailable, quite the opposite… since authenticity is catnip to capital, the blues has become a visual shorthand in advertising: a tastefully blown-out shot of a sharecropper sitting on a porch playing a harmonica, cut with a water droplet running down the flank of a beer bottle. It’s hard to think of another kind of music that has been so thoroughly hollowed out.’
White Tears, Kunzru’s fifth novel, is the story of how the blues has been hollowed out. The novel fleshes out a scenario where authenticity becomes catnip to capital. Finally, it asks, who does the blues belong to? And has its omnipresence today built it up, or brought it down? By being everywhere, has it become less special?
Over the years, the 48-year-old Kunzru has explored questions of identity and belonging in his fiction. He has challenged the Empire, both the British Empire (in The Impressionist, 2003) and multinational corporations (in Transmissions , 2005). Gods Without Men (2011), his last novel, is a financial thriller, American road trip and an immigrant tale wrapped into one, where eras overlap, meanings lapse and threads dangle. Resolution is eschewed for dissatisfaction. While Gods Without Men explored what it is to be human against the white sands and whiter heat of the Mojave desert, White Tears is very much a New York novel.
It is a New York novel not because it opens at the chess tables in Washington Square, but because it recreates the soundscape of the city. Seth, the protagonist and narrator, experiences the metropolis not through sights but through sounds. He obsessively records ‘pockets of sound’, which he would have otherwise ‘moved through without knowing’. The city is no longer the obvious whoosh of cars or the rattle of subway trains; rather, it comes alive through the songs that waft out of automobiles and the rumble of subway cars as they pass underfoot. To Seth, there isn’t a single sound, but a palimpsest of tones and pitches. The true accomplishment of this work is that it is an auditory novel; a novel of the ears, by the ears, for the ears. It is a deeply synesthetic work where the aural becomes the visual.
An unlikely friendship between Seth and Carter is its centre. Seth is a suburban loner, who as a teenager holed himself up in his room for six months, as his basic motto at the time was ‘fuck humanity’. His only preoccupation then was listening and recording, certain that a ‘hidden sound lay underneath the everyday sounds’. Carter, on the other hand, is the quintessential cool dude; ‘blonde dreadlocks, intricate tattoos, a trust fund he didn’t hesitate to use to further the cause of maximum good times. He had the best collection of vinyl records, the best drugs.’ Music and sound cement their bond as they spend hours in marathon listening sessions, record-buying trips, making breakbeats, recording, tinkering, listening, always listening. Carter’s entry into Seth’s life not only gives him an ally in sound, but also bestows upon him the social cachet of music. He is no longer alone, and finds himself surrounded by those ‘attracted by the pheromone musk of music’. But the one difference that never goes away is their relation with money; Carter appears to have copious wealth (he flies in a chartered plane when he so chooses), and Seth is penurious. To outsiders, their friendship defies logic.
While the opening pages set up Carter and Seth as cool twenty-something- year-olds who are ‘connoisseurs of analog echo effects’, ‘unimpressed by the packages on the internet’, the novel then takes an altogether different direction, asking, who does music belong to? What does an obsession with the ‘source’ and ‘origin’ tell us about those who seek it? Does a love for a certain kind of music allow ‘some right to blackness’? And what does this ‘blackness’ mean? Is it simply Rastafarian baubles, street lingo and gesture? Or is it something far greater and deeper—a history of a people, and a way of living?
The success of White Tears is that is takes a cultural idea like ‘appropriation’ and gives it flesh and blood and spirit. And lays out the dangers of it. Because cultural appropriation is an act of hubris, where one particular group has the self-confidence to claim something that is not its own as its own. Carter decides to upload onto the internet Charlie Shaw Graveyard Blues, ‘a song with guitar accompaniment’, which he had recorded at Washington Square from a hooded Black musician. ‘Charlie Shaw’ is a name Carter has just made up, but it ‘looks authentic’ and connoisseurs on blues sites start to lose their shit, thinking it was made in 1928. From here matters take a decidedly ugly turn. Something very bad happens to Carter in the Bronx. And the one person who Seth always coveted but knew he could never really have, Carter’s sister Leonie, appears on the scene. Exit Carter. Enter Leonie. The chapters get shorter. The tone more urgent. Misunderstandings more severe. The isolation more consummate. And the darkness more impenetrable.
The first 150 pages of the book have a talon-like grip on the reader. Kunzru is masterful not only in his hold over the language, but also in his knowledge of music. At some point, however, style overwhelms substance and the reader is left in the same fog as Seth. But given the clime in the US, where questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘theft’ are relevant, it is certain that White Tears by a British novelist and journalist residing in New York will come to be considered one of the great American novels.