The Sounds and the Fury

White Tears: A novel BY Hari Kunzru. Knopf. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.

Part of the suspense in reading Hari Kunzru's astringent, transfixing White Tears comes in wondering when, or if, it's going to stumble into becoming the very thing it's trying to subvert: a sentimental paean to black musical authenticity that gets its back up about white folks' egregious and (seemingly) endless appropriation of blues, jazz, rap, and other African American art forms. Such suspicions grow as it becomes clear that, once again, African Americans themselves are consigned in Kunzru's narrative to bystander status, at best. But by the time the book's horrific jolts have finished pulling your insides out of your own skin, whatever color it may be, White Tears discloses to its readers that it's been wearing a series of masks all along, each concealing what turns out to have been its real motive: to show how the icy hands of exploitation and greed are actually tentacles spoiling, deforming, and crushing every beautiful thing the world yields, whether it's an unpolluted river, a clear sky, or the raw yet fragile sound of a human soul under siege.

The most beset soul, in a novel fraught with them, belongs to Seth, a postmillennial rendering of the ill-fated, pallid-faced loners you typically find wandering the seedy
riverfront streets bracing for howling-wolf winds in a 1950s paperback thriller by David Goodis. Seth grew up compensating for a lonely childhood by cultivating an affinity for random natural sounds: "I was trying to hear something in particular, a phenomenon I was sure existed: a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds I could hear without trying." Seth carries his idiosyncratic pursuit of phantom sound to a small-town liberal-arts college where he befriends a wealthy classmate named Carter Wallace, a flamboyant libertine flashing dreadlocks and tattoos, and developing an obsession with black music, the more arcane its origins the better, because "it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people."

"Authentic." The word comes up frequently in White Tears, first as a badge of honor and then as an irony taunting Seth and Carter's destinies. After college, they establish a Brooklyn recording studio that becomes a hipster boutique operation catering to those in search of refined, esoteric product. A typical client is a white rap star seeking their help in making his very own "vinyl only" remix of African American musical idioms. "He told us," Seth says, "he thought of [him and Carter] like those Chinese oil painters who turn out perfect reproductions of Monets and Cézannes to sell on the internet." Neither of them is flattered by the comparison.

Carter, especially, still yearns not only to buy fugitive sounds of the past, but also to possess that past as if it were a whole continent to colonize. ("Things have been put on shellac that I was born to hear.") And in the spirit of what Auden would call a "low dishonest" age, what he can't possess, he can fabricate out of thin air.

Which brings us to a strain of blues wail Seth haphazardly picks up while collecting random sounds on a squalid summer's day, the music erupting unbidden from an old black chess player in Washington Square Park. Carter decides to use the studio's state-of-the-art equipment to bleach out the street sounds, isolate the singer and song, and, with Seth's help, "make it dirty. Drown it in hiss. I want it to sound like a record that's been sitting under someone's porch for fifty years." Stick on a label that resembles one from an old 78-RPM, make up a title ("Graveyard Blues") and a singer's name ("Charlie Shaw"), and voilà! Instant lost classic!

Seth's misgivings about the ruse reach red-zone levels when a shabby, elderly archetype of the 1950s White Audiophile reaches out to them with the disquieting news that there really was a "Graveyard Blues" recording and that "Charlie Shaw" was, maybe still is, its original vocalist. Carter, willing and able to buy anything he wants, isn't buying that story. But curiosity sends him to the Bronx one night on a mission that may (or may not) resolve this dilemma. In any case, he is beaten into a permanent coma with no evidence and no reliable witnesses. So begins the hallucinatory, hellhound-on-the-trail portion of White Tears, with a grieving Seth and Carter's glamorous, embittered, and enigmatically messed-up sister Leonie setting off to Mississippi in search of whoever Charlie Shaw really was and why he and his "Graveyard Blues" have left a trail of blood, fire, and death in their wake over more than seven decades.

All of which, as noted earlier, sounds like the stuff squeezed into generations of hoodoo melodramas about Dem Dirty Scarifyin' Blues. But Kunzru has proved, especially in his previous novel, 2012's Gods Without Men, that he is one of our most delicate manipulators of shadow, inference, and menace, and that he knows how each is conjoined by history to exact dues from the present. At various points, Seth's melancholy voice recedes to let others fill in the blank, misty spaces, including the aforementioned record collector's account of a similar odyssey taken in the 1950s that came to a ruinous end. The stories almost literally bleed into each other, past and present summoning broken promises and vindictive spirits from the restless earth. The myths of heritage and music retain their aura and prove to be every bit as entrenched as the more tangible legacies of injustice and exploitation, most of the latter carried out in Carter's absence by his family, whose own complicity in American demonology is disclosed by their lucrative private-prison enterprise.

White Tears won't answer all your questions about race and authenticity. But it may at least help make a couple of things clear. First, race isn't the only factor in getting fucked over by the powerful in America; second, the only "authenticity" that counts for anything in the end is whatever's staring back at you in the mirror.


Gene Seymour has previously written on Albert Murray and the 2016 presidential campaign for Bookforum.