Knopf, 288 pages, $26.95
In fact, “White Tears” defies categorization. It’s well-written, provocative, antithetical, with multiple meanings. Hari Kunzru, British-born but now a New York resident, has traveled up and down the U.S. in search of this novel. It appears that his love of blues music, old blues, led to this fabulation of blues, cultural appropriation, and a contemplation of identity.
Seth, the identity-torn, lost-in-time main character, is a young white man. He is poor and without visible family connections. Reviewers, and perhaps even Kunzru, have defined him as a “hipster.” There’s nothing, except a hat, that has necessarily marked him as one. Seth’s aesthetic is perhaps of the “non-“ variety: non-specific, non-chic, non-aggrandizing, non-accreting. His one friend, and who can say why he has acquired that specific friend, is Carter, the scion of a rich, powerful family.
Seth’s true talent and compulsion is auditory. (Look for the point in the story in which he loses the hearing in one ear. Does it make him more of a normal person?) He is a techno-geek and builds auditory spyware out of junk. Through Carter he vastly improves his collection. Seth seeks the nature of humanity in its sound. Will he then be able to define his own humanity? Kunzru does in the end define Seth, but by that point Seth stands for much more than just himself.
One day Seth seems to record a man singing a blues song: “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own … Put me under a man they call Captain Jack.” There is something captivating and pure about the song. Carter, already obsessed by different styles of music in turn, becomes obsessed with it. Seth and Carter manufacture a record and add details to make it sound like an old 78. It causes a minor stir in the slice of the music world devoted to old-time blues. Seth and Carter named the singer Charlie Shaw. Then a mysterious collector claims there is actually an old record of that song by a singer named Charlie Shaw. It is the holy grail of collectors. But we made it up, declare Seth and Carter.
Ghosts, demons and death follow.
Kunzru twists reality and offers several storylines, which are not obvious at first, obscured as they are by similar narrative tones and a similar objective. Throughout the book, Kunzru draws his readers down to a distillation of what it means to sing the blues, what experiences authenticate the blues, what appropriation by people who do not understand the genesis takes away from it. It is more than racism or white privilege or benign misappropriation; it is the experience of a people because they are black. Not because they are good or bad or weak or strong or any of the other race-neutral attributes by which we judge and classify people, but because they are black. Kunzru takes us slowly through to the end with this thought in mind.
In the end, Elvis singing old-time blues songs is just Elvis mouthing words.