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Culture 03/04/2017

Hari Kunzru’s White Tears explores how racial injustice haunts America

Levee workers, Louisiana, 1935. Image: Library of Congress


“Affluent White Man Enjoys, Causes The Blues”

The Onion, 23 February 2000

First, we should address the title of Hari Kunzru’s new novel White Tears. Anyone who’s been following the part political, part generational culture wars that have played out online and on campuses for the past few years will be familiar with the term “white tears”, a sarcastic put down of white liberals who dare complain that their struggle too, is real, or worse, that they, good allies, are being treated unfairly, when all they want to do is help.

Thankfully, Kunzru has not written a campus satire , or his take on internet activist culture.

Instead, White Tears is an eerie meditation on identity, exploitation and the weight of history.

The story is told by Seth, a quiet, awkward young man obsessed not so much with music as sound. We first find Seth cycling around New York, recording streetscapes, and then returning to his apartment to prise out the individual elements.

Seth lives in New York with Carter Wallace, his impossibly wealthy university friend. Seth and Carter are both white, but already from different worlds, Carter’s privilege being a subject of fascination. Early on, Seth observes of Carter that:

“Money was Carter’s invisible helper, a friendly ghost making things happen in the background. Cars arrived, restaurant tabs got picked up. When it was time to change scenery, money dissolved the city into a beach or a ski lodge. The thing was never to point out it was happening.”

Seth and Carter bond over music. When they meet at university Seth is obsessed with techno music, the gleamingly futuristic, anti-nostalgia rhythm created by black DJs and producers in Detroit. Carter’s tastes are more diverse, Seth notes, but always, always created by black artists. Meanwhile, Seth pines for Carter’s sister Leonie, another rich kid hoping to eke something real out of the city, this time as a visual artist. Leonie’s dedication is such that her apartment, in a concierged Manhattan block, is an almost perfect replica of an artist’s studio in Bushwick or any other neighbourhood she would never actually live.

As the two make their first attempts at making music, Carter becomes increasingly obsessed with finding an “authentic” sound, leading him down ever more obscure paths towards the “real” sound of early country blues. With family money, he opens an analogue-only studio, making new recordings sound like the product of a lifetime’s digging in the crates. They record “punk chicks from LA who were big fans of the Sixties  Detroit girl groups. Big hair and sailor tattoos, that whole deal”, and a “Big British band” flogging “the whole Rolling Stones junkie troubadour bullshit.” Seth worries that has lost touch with the future, dragged further into a world where his job is to fake “authentic” sounds of the past. A white rapper (hence, in Carter’s eyes, immediately inauthentic) approaches the studio hoping to make a concept album made up of different sounds from different decades.

Hari Kunzru. Image: Clayton Cubitt

While all this is happening, Carter has become obsessed with snippets from one of Seth’s field recordings, which seems to be a voice singing a previously unknown blues song. Carter deviously teases the tune out of Seth’s recordings, remasters it to sound like an early blues recording, and puts the resulting file on a specialist website, complete with title (Graveyard Blues), serial number, and artist – the entirely invented Charlie Shaw.

A collector, identified only as JumpJim, contacts the pair, demanding to know more about the record.

This is the point where things get complicated.

JumpJim, a miserable, shabby figure, claims to know things about the record – an impossibility since no such record exists  – and hints at a darkness the recording carries.

Next thing we hear, Carter is in a coma, having been dragged from his car in the middle of the night, somewhere in the Bronx. What was he doing there? No one knows, but the Wallace family machine kicks into gear, essentially shutting down the story and in the process banishing Seth from its presence.

An odyssey of sorts follows,  as Seth convinces Leonie to join him on a journey south to find what he can of Charlie Shaw. Meanwhile, Kunzru takes us back in time to JumpJim’s own youth, and beginnings as a collector, during the early years of the civil rights movement.

The mid-century scenes in particular carry a rough bleakness. JumpJim’s blues-collecting mentor, Chester Bly, is a joyless heroin addict with specific notions about what constitutes a correct record collection. He takes JumpJim south, on a record buying trip, passing himself off as a pastor to win the trust of poor black southerners, before buying their old records on the cheap. Bly’s successors, the likes of Seth and Carter, dress up their interest in black music with some pretence at interest in the lives of black people: Bly showed no such concern, at one point assuring a southern policeman that he “stands with the white man”.

What is it exactly that Seth wants from Charlie Shaw? Absolution? Kunzru tackles the white liberal notion that one can somehow crack a code, that by listening to the right records, or reading the right books, one can win the “not racist” stamp. Of course, the pitfall of attempting to find an authentic voice, an authentic experience, is that the next step is essentialism. Early in the book Seth complains that the actual black people at his college are not like the real black people in his records.

The questions over the realness of Graveyard Blues and Charlie Shaw become ever more convoluted. What is real is the Wallace family’s fortune, built on forced labour on the Mississippi Levees and maintained through contracting prison services.

Just as, early in the book, Seth describes the spectral presence of wealth in his friend Carter’s life, the racism from which this money ultimately derived also haunts the characters, ultimately to disaster.

In White Tears, Hari Kunzru has built a compelling picture of American society, driven to violence and madness by its conundrum of race, place and authenticity.

White Tears is published by Hamish Hamilton

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms. He is Director of Editorial at 89up and has written and ghostwritten for The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Sun, and The Irish Post.

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    Antony Loewenstein is an independent Australian journalist, documentary maker and blogger who has written for the BBC, the Nation and the Washington Post. He’s a weekly Guardian columnist and the author of three best-selling books, My Israel Question, The Blogging Revolution and Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World. His latest book is Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, and he’s currently working on a documentary about disaster capitalism.

    Image: Jenny Westerhoff