It feels like one of the great functions of literature can be to give a voice to people who have been rendered voiceless through whatever pitfall in history. The same can be said for music which can so powerfully convey the stories of entire groups of people whose voices have been suppressed, ignored or erased by those in power. This is certainly true with the history of Blues music which was originated by African Americans in the Deep South and continued to grow and evolve through generations and decades of black oppression in America. In Hari Kunzru's latest novel “White Tears” he tells the story of an emotionally-arresting Blues song rediscovered by a pair of earnest young musicians and the dramatic effect it has on their lives. But this isn't a simple story about musical admiration or influence. Kunzru posits the compelling idea that a sound once uttered resonates indefinitely throughout history and he weaves this concept into a fascinating detective story which slides into the surreal. It’s a novel that makes powerful statements about race, privilege and the long-lasting resonance of music.
The narrator Seth meets Carter Wallace at university. He’s humbled that Carter wants to be his friend because this dreadlocked, tattooed, trust fund boy is so popular and comes from an extremely wealthy family. But they connect over music and Seth’s tech-savvy ability for capturing sound and turning it into beats and rhythms. Unsurprisingly, Carter is the black sheep of his corporate-driven family, but he’s still allowed money enough to found their music production business once they leave school. Their creative fusion of forgotten Blues and Jazz tunes with modern songs garners them a lot of attention including from an incredibly successful new pop artist that wants to pay tribute to bygone music eras. But Carter becomes obsessed by a particular song that Seth happens to record in passing. It leads them on a strange path into the past and a musical genius that’s been lost in history.
There’s a steadily growing tension within the novel about the way these two white boys become attached to a black music tradition. Are they demonstrating an admiration for it or appropriating it? Seth feels that “our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness, but by the time we got to New York, we’d learned not to talk about it.” Because they are passionate about it, they feel themselves to be in touch with the culture that created it. Seth also recalls a kind of friendship he made with a white male co-worker, Chester Bly, who was an avid Blues record collector and actively sought out forgotten musician’s work: “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.” Seth sets out on a journey of discovery for music, but finds himself immersed in a culture and people that he doesn’t understand and didn’t even knew existed within his own country. Here things get very odd within the narrative.
The novel eventually transforms into a hallucinatory story where the boundaries of identity become blurred and history plays back upon itself. Seth becomes caught in a loop of time as if he were in a Beckett play: “I look down at my hands. I have always been looking down at my hands, but as in a dream when you find yourself unable to read text or tell the time, they are vague.” I found this style-shift somewhat alarming and disconcerting at first, but it eventually became really emotionally resonant for me. The later part of the book feels something like a Cesar Aira novel. The story of a man who has been greatly wronged erupts through the chaotic breakdown of Seth’s life. So it becomes partly a tale of possession and partly a revenge tale and partly a testament to an entire race of people that’s been continuously oppressed throughout American history. “White Tears” is a resonant and peculiarly haunting novel.