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White Tears, Hari Kunzru, Alfred Knopf, 2017, 271 pp
Five years ago I read Hari Kunzru's fourth novel, Gods Without Men. I was stunned by his imagination, his complicated world view, and his crackling prose. I have not yet read his earlier novels but I will. As soon as I could get a copy of his new novel from the library, I read it in three sittings.
In White Tears, he sets up an unlikely friendship between Carter, a mentally disturbed trust fund kid, and Seth, a withdrawn socially awkward dude who is obsessed with sound. Seth tells this haunted tale and opens with: "That summer I would ride my bike over the bridge, lock it up in front of one of the bars on Orchard Street and drift through the city on foot, recording. People and places. Sidewalk smokers, lovers' quarrels, drug deals. I wanted to store the world and play it back just as I'd found it, without change or addition." (My husband is a recording engineer. I was instantly hooked.)
Seth believes that "every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration." One day he records a chess hustler in Washington Square singing a line from a blues song. "Believe I'll buy me a graveyard of my own."
The connection between Carter and Seth is music. Carter collects old blues records. The two of them listen to them for hours. After college, using Carter's inherited wealth, the two open a recording studio with Carter as businessman and procurer of clients and Seth as audio engineer.
Within a few chapters the story takes a weird turn and then just goes into a widening gyre of weirdness. Something very horrific happens to Carter. Seth and Carter's equally deranged sister Leonie, depart for the South on a quest to find the old blues guy who originally recorded "Believe I'll Buy Me a Graveyard." Seth's belief about sound waves and physiological effects leads him into being haunted by that old blues guy.
Meanwhile Hari Kunzru leads his readers into a history and meditation on greed, exploitation, race, and the wages of sin. I finished the novel in a quandary. Who owns creativity? How is it that creative types are so often submerged by others who cannot create but can only live off of creatives?
Charlie Shaw, the creator of the graveyard song, was a black man. As James Baldwin said, "It is only in his music...that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story." I truly hope Hari Kunzru does not read this review because I even wondered if he, as an author, had exploited black musicians in order to write his novel. I am sure it was not his intention, but how many black musicians had to die to create White Tears?
But maybe, just maybe, every sound wave does have a physiological effect, so that a creative named Hari Kunzu, a mixed British/Kasmiri Hindu, could channel the vibrations of a 1920s black blues artist from Mississippi.
(White Tears is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)