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White Tears

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Horror (2017)
From one of the most talented fiction writers at work today: two ambitious young musicians are drawn into the dark underworld of blues record collecting, haunted by the ghosts of a repressive past.

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is glamorous and the heir to one of America's great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it's a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter's troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation's darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

271 pages, Hardcover

First published March 14, 2017

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About the author

Hari Kunzru

42 books717 followers
Hari Mohan Nath Kunzru (born 1969) is a British novelist and journalist, author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission and My Revolutions. Of mixed English and Kashmiri Pandit ancestry, he grew up in Essex. He studied English at Wadham College, Oxford University, then gained an MA in Philosophy and Literature from Warwick University. His work has been translated into twenty languages. He lives in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,499 reviews
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews309 followers
March 2, 2017
This book isn't what you think it is. This book wasn't what you thought it was. This book has always not been what you thought it would be.

I felt like there were two books in White Tears, but the final, can't stop reading for anything 50 pages force the halves into sides A and B of the record, completing each other, forming a whole, forcing me to appreciate more of what had come before. Early parts are occasionally irritating but gave me enough interest as we come to know Seth and Carter and Carter's sister Leonie, get background on their backgrounds, are introduced to their passions and the personal demons that follow each of them are hinted it. Seth and Carter have graduated from a liberal arts college: Seth is our narrator, a somewhat spineless, introverted guy with a prior psychotic break in high school, and he marvels at and is made important by his friendship with rich Carter Wallace who seemingly has the world on a string and anything and everything available to him, but who is ashamed of his wealth and privilege (though not above using both carelessly and thoughtlessly) and is endlessly searching for something that will help him feel, connect, be a more authentic version of himself. Their shared love for the world of sound bind them, and then Carter's obsession with blues and preserving and recreating that music fuses Seth to him more firmly.

Then something dramatic occurs - no spoilers here, better to go in a bit unprepared and green - and Kunzru shifts the ground beneath the reader's feet. It's hard to say and probably will change depending on the reader, but you'll find either the book goes off the rails, or the book finally gets onto the track it needed to be on. For me, it seemingly takes a horrifying acid trip that blurs and transcends the boundaries of time and ends up shrouded in darkness. It's disquieting, uncomfortable, violent, surreal. And it reaches its most critical, important moments in those final pages that tie what came before together, the past we can't escape and can't form to our will, no matter if we long to escape it or are obsessed with it as a more authentic, real time.

While the early parts of the novel indeed invoke and discuss, American white privilege, there's an absence of black voices or authority or agency. At first I thought this was a miss on Kunzru's part, and was beginning to grow tired of the ignorance and tacit ownership Seth and Carter assume. But it turns out that erasure of the black perspective was a deliberate choice, and it comes back with a (literal and figurative) vengeance in the second half, a stinging indictment of past transgressions and present structure that perpetuates white appropriation of black culture, white exploitation of black bodies: once as slaves, then as sharecroppers and work release for petty misdemeanors, now feeding the coffers of private prisons and white wardens and owners, black bodies fueling the engine of a broken criminal justice system. And we, watching Seth, let Kunzru take us from the early perspective:

We really did feel 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. We didn't want to be mistaken for the kind of suburban white boys who post pictures of themselves holding malt liquor bottles and throwing gang signs.

To later:

On your record deck, you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn't have, the authority you thought it would bring. It scared you, but you thought of the swagger it would put in your walk, the admiring glances of your friends. Then came the terror when real darkness first seeped through the walls of your bedroom, the walls designed to keep you safe and dreaming. And finally your rising sense of shame when you admitted to yourself that you were relieved the walls were there. The shame of knowing that you would do nothing, that you would allow it all to carry on.

Kunzru's writing is quite fine, very readable even in the acid trip half of the book, with for me quite a few revelatory phrases and ideas, and some great descriptive elements. But it's that unsettling feeling and atmosphere that shook me and will stay with me. His writing explicitly and implicitly invokes the crossroads, the fine dividing line, between life and death, between sanity and madness, between existence and erasure, the various devils that serve us and take hold of us and master us.

It's hard for me to rate this book: I ran through myriad reactions. But a few hours after finishing it, I am still unsettled, still disquieted, still satisfied by the weaving of the narrative and the force of the message about black erasure in our past and present. It may weigh on my mind in the most disturbing way possible for awhile. So I'll go with 4 stars. It's definitely not a book for everyone, it's for sure flawed and sometimes difficult to read but I could not put it down and it ultimately crawled under my skin.

-received an ARC on edelweiss, thanks to Knopf
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,722 followers
January 30, 2019
An unnerving read that pulls the reader in nearly as many uncomfortable directions as it does its characters.

The main narrator has a glib and superficial way of describing events, where the very dark currents of the novel are camouflaged for a time, only slipping into view intermittently. The foreshadowing is so subtle that it can be mistaken for misdirection, but it was the perfect way to disarm me in the beginning, and to prevent me from accurately predicting what was in store for me.

Music doesn't behave as it should in the novel. This thematic leitmotif--of music not quite behaving as it should--grows more insistent as the book progresses. Music can be soul-felt and soul-revealing, a cry from the past that connects with the present in sometimes-uncanny ways; but the power of music to connect this way, across time, is perverted by the main characters, who are more interested in collecting original 78's than they are in understanding the music or appreciating the artists who created it.

The last pages of the novel are heartbreaking and unexpected. Somehow this UK author of Kashmiri and British ancestry has written a scathing indictment of racism in America, approaching the topic in such an oblique way in the beginning that I was not prepared for the message when it came, and was not able to equivocate or hide from it.
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.2k followers
March 21, 2020

A novel of horror that is also a novel of ideas is a rare thing. Frankenstein, the great grand daddy of them all, clearly meets the definition, and I believe a good case could be made for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Dr. Moreau as well. But the only other example I can think of is the subject of this review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru.

It’s a great premise for a horror novel. Carter (the elegant trust fund kid) and his sidekick Seth (the nerdy lower middle class kid) are two young white men fascinated by the nature of sound, whether it be the ambient sounds captured on walks around NYC, or the ancient imperfectly reproduced sounds of classic blues recordings. They have embarked on a career as record producers: Carter the charismatic money-man, Seth the gifted engineer.

One evening, listening to a month-old tape recorded in Washington Square Park, Seth—our narrator—discovers a complete a capella blues he does not clearly remember recording. Even stranger, somewhat later on the same tape, he finds an instrumental blues guitar solo he has no memory of encountering at all. So he puts them together, and—guess what?--they fit together perfectly.

Seth is terrified; Carter is simply ecstatic. Seth--against his better judgment--manipulates the song, reducing its sonic range and filling it with simulated scratches until it sounds just like an old “race record” of the ‘20’s. They give it a phony Paramount label, a phony catalog number too, and invent a name for the singer, Charlie Shaw.

When they upload their fraud to a blues message board, the hoax is a success, some even proclaiming Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues” a masterpiece. But then something happens that chills them right to the bone: a man—JumpJim at 20—messages them and says: before you posted that song, I had not heard Charlie Shaw since 1959.

Soon Seth and Carter—and Seth’s secret crush, Carter’s sister Leonie—embark on a dark journey that eventually leads to the Deep South, a journey that endangers their livelihood, their lives, and their very identity.

So where does “the novel of ideas” come in? Hari Kunzru—who was born in London to Kashmiri parents—takes as his themes the complicities and dangers of cultural appropriation, and the shifting nature of the blues itself. Is the blues a tradition shared or a tradition stolen? A heartfelt cry or a commodity? A cultural collaboration or a pure thing sullied? A way of knowing the other, or a calculated effacement of the other’s identity? In subtle, clean prose, Kunzru—who has considerable knowledge of blues music and blues collectors--raises these issues (while suggesting how they intersect with race and class), but never preaches about them. Instead, in spare, elegant prose, he weaves a compelling narrative that causes the reader to stop and think, but seldom slows and never falters.

I know it left me with a lot to think about. And it scared the hell out of me too.
Profile Image for J. Kent Messum.
Author 5 books226 followers
April 1, 2021
*Review originally published in the New York Journal Of Books: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-...

There’s a lot going on in White Tears . . . maybe too much.

The story starts off well. Two young white men meet in college and make a strong, but unlikely, connection through their shared love of music. Seth, from whose perspective the story is mostly told, is the low income antisocial kid who proves to be great at making equipment and recording with it, but little else. Carter, a charming and handsome trust-fund kid, fancies himself a connoisseur focusing on African American music, the older the better. With Seth’s studio talents hitched to Carter’s money and music tastes, the pair embarks on a journey to create sonic art in New York City.

Seth spends his time walking around NYC with a hidden microphone/recorder, capturing busker performances and sampling the sounds of the street. Carter indulges in record collecting, searching out B-sides and rarities that the pair can mix into their productions. As they immerse themselves more in the music world, Seth becomes more focused, and Carter becomes more obsessed. They make a mock-up of an old blues song and credit it to a mystery musician that Carter invents named Charlie Shaw. Then they put the tune on the Internet and watch it disseminate, fooling every listener into thinking their song is a long lost gem from the South. For all the positive attention they receive, some bad hoodoo starts coming their way as well.

An old record collector claims Charlie Shaw is real and that the pair has unearthed a great danger. When they contact the elderly man and investigate his claims, tragedy soon strikes and a dark downward spiral into America’s music history begins, one where abuse and theft ran rampant and the rightful futures of genius black artists were denied by racial barriers and widespread bigotry.

White Tears is definitely a book of two halves. The first half is enjoyable; great character building for the two mains, plus an exploration of the themes of wealth, privilege, class systems, and cultural appropriation.

However, midway through the novel changes gears and the second half suddenly becomes a vehicle for a paranormal-esque thriller/horror tale of revenge that hasn’t been primed properly by the first half. As a result it often doesn’t work very well. There is a shifting of perspectives as well as a shifting of time and place to try and achieve an unsettling back-story that parallels parts of the main story. Instead of tumultuous and disjointed, it comes off confusing and incomprehensive.

Within this pinball mechanism of a plot, the novel ricochets toward an end most readers won’t see coming, but that has more to do with increasing incoherence and sudden revelations that come very late in the game. Our suspension of disbelief is sorely tested by weak plotting and messy mechanics.

Furthermore, on the surface it might seem that Kunzru has done his homework, but it becomes apparent that he has never been immersed in music to the degree that he should be writing so in depth about it. People in the music business will sense and spot faults in this novel; the weak grasp of audio engineering, incessant name-dropping, and what amounts to a scratching of the surfaces of studio, music, and production work. There are some interesting ideas, such as radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi's theory that sound never actually dies (instead continuing on indefinitely, becoming forever quieter and drowned out by newer sounds), but it isn’t enough to keep the idea behind Charlie Shaw’s revenge afloat.

There’s no denying that Kunzru can write. His prose has great flow, and the pace of his storytelling has a compelling urgency. Dialogue is mostly on the strong side, and he tackles some tough questions (and even harder answers). But the delivery of his message is heavy-handed and often poorly executed.

That being said, this book will receive much positive attention due to the author's pedigree and for taking on the tender subject matter of American cultural appropriation and racism, but the fact remains that this novel staggered under the weight of its own ambitions, and the narrative suffered from its own intentional confusion. When all is said and done, White Tears is a great book to get into . . . but not such a good one to get out of.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,694 reviews14.1k followers
March 28, 2017
3.5 Seth, our narrator is somewhat of a misfit, many are surprised when Carter, the son of a wealthy family, picks him to be his mate, best friend. They share a love of music, and both are avid collectors, though this collecting will soon turn into obsession when Seth, who takes to the streets to record street noises, records part of an old, unheard of song from a black man playing a chess match. Sparking a switch in Carter's brain, he starts searching for lost, blues music recorded from blacks, know by number, recorded on old 78's, and not easy to find.

A difficult book to review, it is innovative, imaginative and sometimes frustrating. It starts out innocuously enough, friendship, music, collecting but half way through morphs into something different, stranger shall we say. The past becomes the present, or the present becomes the past as we are taken back to the Jim Crow South. Has all this happened before? There are deaths that propel the novel forward. There is a musician from years before, now dead, but feels the need to be heard. So things become muddled, everything mixing together but all surrounded by the music, the records, the blues. The black culture and their music being approbated by whites, a warning, a telling, a showing. The treatment of blacks in the old South, the obsession of collectors, a friendship between two different young men and a strange twist of fate, are all enfolded within this story.

Not for everyone, a challenging read but an interesting one. I liked it because it was something completely different from anything I have ever read.

ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Katie.
263 reviews334 followers
April 3, 2018
Some books accumulate merit points as they progress; others have a habit of losing them. I'm afraid this fell into the latter category for me. It's set up really well. The narrator is a nerdy guy who goes around recording ambient noise. No one likes him. Until Carter, a cool rich boy, takes a shine to him. Carter doesn't have much time for the digital age. He collects old r&b records, the older and more obscure the better. Carter carries all the ancestral guilt for the base means by which his family has built its colossal fortune. One day the nerdy guy records some street singer singing a blues song neither of them recognise. They upload it onto the internet and resurrect a vengeful ghost.

I was really enjoying this. I liked its esoteric quality and I was intrigued by the mystery it sets up. But when he introduces the twist the writing got a little too melodramatic and pretentious for my liking. The author has a bash at evoking a split personality in the manner of Fight Club and American Psycho but for me never pulled it off. I liked it when it occupied a small canvas; the minute it went out into a bigger world I often found myself rolling my eyes.
Profile Image for Robin.
475 reviews2,557 followers
June 8, 2017
The song that never ends

A disorienting, uncomfortable, fascinating story that looks like one thing on the surface, but veers off into unexpected places. What begins with a couple of young white guys who are passionate about music from the past, turns into a ghostly tale of scorching revenge.

Carter and Seth, living lives of privilege afforded by Carter's wealthy family, start the nightmare when they upload a recording of an unknown blues singer to the internet. They name the singer "Charlie Shaw" - a made up name because they don't know who the singer is, as his song appeared surreptitiously on a recording Seth made, though he has no memory of hearing the singing at the time. It attracts attention from online blues aficionados as well as a mysterious collector; it possesses Carter who can think of nothing else. The wheel starts turning in a malevolent direction with deathly results.

We go back in time to the 1950's to hear the story of another record collector who is punished severely for his role with Shaw. We return to the present story which is getting more and more strange and involves Carter's sister Leonie. Time is starting to lose its shape. Characters begin to feel the oddest, most intense form of deja vu - often having the feeling that "I was always walking down this road" or "I was always ordering eggs at this diner", the feeling that this moment is permanent, unalterable, and does not disappear with the ticking hands of the clock.

Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world. Marconi thought that if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to the sound of ancient times.

The idea that sound never stops is captivating - Charlie Shaw's song certainly seemed to bleed through the years. If only there were such a microphone that Marconi described, perhaps the characters in this book would stop to listen to the history of the music they collected, and would learn something.

Unfortunately, that's not how the lesson is learned. And it is a bouquet of tough lessons, about racism, about cultural appropriation in regards to black music, about injustices that go back generations. As Seth keeps protesting, "It wasn't me! It wasn't my fault! It wasn't me who did this to you!" But Hari Kunzru shows that history belongs to all of us, and some wounds aren't simply healed by time.
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews966 followers
December 15, 2018
A surreal ghost story, White Tears confronts the painful legacy of the exploitation of Black culture in America. The novel starts off by following two white hipsters, Seth and Carter, as they move to New York, launch a record company, and try to make a fortune off appropriating Black music. In early chapters, the author builds a great deal of suspense surrounding a mysterious folk song that Seth records while on a walk searching for interesting sounds; he and Carter upload it to the web, someone claims to have heard it years ago, and sinister things start to happen. The story sprawls and becomes elaborate, but the author effectively keeps readers on edge as Carter becomes obsessed with the song and Seth loses his grip on reality. Around the middle a series of jarring twists move the novel in strange, sometimes amusing, directions, culminating in a grotesque act of violence. While I enjoyed the set-up, the second half of the book came across as meandering and incoherent to me, not incisive and sharp, but I’ll return to it in a few years.
Profile Image for Rosh.
55 reviews233 followers
November 4, 2017
I can't decide if this book deserves one star or five, so I went for three. It's not a perfect novel, which isn't to say it isn't great. It reads like water while being complicated on the verge of convoluted. Hari Kunzro has written something extremely complex and thoroughly readable, but something is missing. My biggest issue with the novel is pacing. The beginning of the book is much more generous than the end-the extreme change that the book goes through in the last 50 pages is extremely intense. The main character Seth is meant to get lost for the reader, but his loss is so total you miss the character and cannot connect with him at all. It delves into race relations in the United States but it fails to make any revelations. Black suffering is still ornamental, as much as Kunzro tries to give it a real life and texture.

There could have been a solid book here in a quieter mode about the passion young people feel for music and the journey that takes. I thought this was going to be that book but I was wrong.
Profile Image for Emma.
971 reviews966 followers
April 15, 2018
Before writing this review, I HAD to read what others had said to know if it was just me. This feeling of total disconnection and confusion. As so many reviewers have noted, the first half of the book had me; the complexity of relationships with both family and friends; the history of music and what it can mean to people in their search for self; just who is allowed/able to appreciate a specific style or period of art, in this case blues music of the 20s/30s by a (lovingly?) obsessive, rich, white collector; privilege and its lack; attitudes towards and the experience of mental health issues.

Then there's a dramatic, defining incident. All of a sudden the tone and content of the book turns. And for me, was lost. It's bizarre and otherworldly, jittery and dark. It felt like the thrashings of a trapped, damaged mind. Other people have seen something in this section that I could not. Yet what is very clear is the talent of Kunzru in his ability to evoke the strange and labyrinthine paths of the mind. I'm not sure whether I disliked the second half of the book because it clashed so much with the first, because it left me with unresolved questions, or because it was so unsettling. All of the above, i'm sure, but I leave it feeling unsure and I don't like it.

ARC via Netgalley
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,419 reviews536 followers
April 12, 2021
[4+] Two music-obsessed white friends, one wealthy and hip, the other poor and nerdy, fake a blues recording - and then things get weird. The novel becomes a twisty journey about the consequences of cultural appropriation, racism and greed. As the novel progresses, the action becomes less linear -sometimes the present dissolves and boundaries between time periods become loose and fluid. I wasn't always sure if we were in the past or present or somewhere in between. The burden of history is everywhere.

What an ending! I don't think I'll ever get this book out of my mind. I am so excited to have "discovered" Kunzru - and am already plotting which of his novels I will read next!
Profile Image for Jill.
1,155 reviews1,610 followers
February 25, 2017
What is the connection between the listener and the musician? Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead? And which is which?

In this brilliant new novel, Hari Kunzru explores these questions. The narrator, Seth, is a dweeby young man who is obsessed with recording sounds during his walks in New York City. One day he happens across an old chess player who is singing a haunting blues song that he can't get out of his mind. He brings the song to Carter, his bestie who comes from an obscenely rich family and has his own obsession with old blues 78s from the 1930s. Together, they "authenticize" the song, making it sound like it's the real deal from the birth of the blues, and "put it out there", driving collectors mad.In fact, they even name the blues singer: Charlie Shaw.

But did Charlie Shaw ever really exist? And if so, why is his ghost so unsettled and what unfinished business does he have? The novel veers from a paen to the blues to the mystery and ghost genres, as time becomes fluid and everything that's happening already happened. As the novel becomes more hallucinatory, the theme of cultural appropriation becomes clearer. One question says, "The anmes were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about them. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness...Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost."

In an important way, the novel is about boundaries: the fluid boundary of time, the boundaries between musician and listener, the so-called living and the so-called dead, white and black, and the Side A and Side B of life (Side A is for the talented; Side B is just a joke for those who understand nothing). For a while, I admired the book enormously, but during the last 50 pages, the admiration turned into real love.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
January 11, 2018
This was one of the books for which I had reading envy at the end of 2017, because I kept hearing good things and it ended up on so many year-end best books lists. So I cleared space for it in January after it was also shortlisted for the Tournament of Books.

This is an excellent read. It contains that rare element that I do look for, where the author takes you somewhere far from where they started. Although I had heard mentions of this being about music, and about race, I had no idea where it was headed, and it took me a few days to even wrap my brain around it.

The novel starts out focused on Seth and Carter. Carter is a rich white kid who befriends Seth over a shared love and attention to music. Seth is from a poor background but has true technological skills, and a good ear. He records what he hears walking around the city, then fragments and samples it in different ways. Carter pays for old recordings, going through phases of what he likes, and they build a library of rare sounds. They are working towards running a studio, something that Seth is more interested in. Carter has become obsessed with an old blues song that somehow ended up on one of the recordings.

Then the novel shifts. A series of tragedies twists everything around into a discussion of appropriation and ownership, creativity and race, privilege and power. The way I read it, probably because I'm a white person, I struggled to let go of feeling a connection to Seth, because of the way he is originally introduced as the underdog. I still feel a bit of a loss over the creative work he had done that he was cut off from by Carter's family.

So then there is the tangent of all the things I thought about after finishing the book. As an academic librarian, and as someone who has worked in a traditional music archive, full of recordings made by (mainly) white scholars of (mainly) non-white people groups, I started wondering about the role of archives and libraries in misappropriation of music. Especially in the 21st century where we spend so much time and energy putting obscure sound recordings online. But in the novel, much of what Seth and Carter collect and use comes from the dark corners of the internet, not just physical recordings. Are we doing the right thing?

And what would proper use of musical inspiration look like?

These are the big questions I still have.
Profile Image for Monica.
582 reviews610 followers
June 22, 2018
"Believe I buy a graveyard of my own..."

Wow, what a powerful, intriguing, and clever book!

I really enjoyed White Tears. It was a complex, rich satisfying bit of historical novel and just desserts. Rich, smug, entitled, self-important, callous people receive their due for sins of the past and present with overtones regarding race, wealth, subjugation, exploitation, and character. This novel is an allegory or fable not just about white privilege, racism, cultural appropriation, inhumanity and greed, but also an indictment of people who see the evil and injustice while it is happening and do nothing or ignore it. Those who watch are complicit. Really potent and incredibly timely. We are witnessing sins today that will be revisited upon our children and grandchildren. Everything happening has an impact not just on a people/culture/society that we oppress; but on a culture and society that is built upon injustice, greed, and inhumanity as the foundation. This is the history of America. Those who don't heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. We don't know the medium or methods, but in the end justice will prevail. Here we go again. Take a stand against evil or stand idly by at your own (and your future family lineage) karmic peril...

4.5 Stars

Listened to audiobook. Excellent!!
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,586 reviews1,984 followers
October 8, 2016
I don't like to read the summary of a book before I read it. I started WHITE TEARS knowing Kunzru from some of his previous works and expecting a smart book on race in America. That is what I got, but it came in a package I wasn't expecting, a literary horror novel, a ghost story with a Blues soundtrack, a tale of class and the evil so much of the country was built upon.

They may call this book a "ghost story" or "magical realism" because those tend to be more literary-friendly words, but I think it definitely falls into the category of Horror. I don't really separate my genre fiction from literary fiction, and this was yet another excellent book that does both.

It starts with biting commentary on snobbery, the habits of collectors, and privilege. A familiar story of a nobody who becomes friends with a somebody who gets to see a new way to live first-hand. But things start to go wrong. Things fall apart. The book slowly turns into something very different and the end of the book bears little resemblance to the beginning.

Kunzru sucked me in and I could've read it in a day if I'd been awake enough to keep going.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,946 reviews292k followers
December 12, 2017
A fantastic and clever idea; an execution that left much to be desired.

I've never felt so strongly aware of an author pushing his extensive research on the reader as I was while reading White Tears. Kunzru spares no details as he delves into heavy descriptions of the sound editing process and audio engineering. He name-drops. His characters contemplate music theory ad nauseum. It felt unnatural, like the author was ever-present behind the narrative, showcasing his impressive amount of research into the subject matter. The book would have been stronger without it.

I also agree completely with other readers who noted that this is a book of two VERY different halves. The first half is much more palatable and enjoyable, even with the addition of the aforementioned info-dumping. This first half explores wealth, privilege and class, developing the two main characters - Seth and Carter - and their fascination obsession with vintage blues music.

White Tears is essentially about the very real dangers of cultural appropriation as two twenty-something white hipsters play around in the world of black music. When Seth records a random singer in a park with a beautiful blues-y voice, Carter puts it online and claims it is a long-lost vintage blues recording by the made-up Charlie Shaw. In a strange turn of events, a collector contacts them saying the recording and musician are actually real.

This is where the book is strongest. Kunzru shines a light on the extent of Seth and Carter's privilege, firstly emphasizing how Carter's economic prosperity aids him, but then also showing the ways in which Seth gains as a white man capitalizing on a black man's music (whether fictional or not). It takes steps toward exploring the tumultuous history of black music in America but, unfortunately, this is where the book goes, um... completely nuts.

The second half of the book reads like a random stream of nonsense. The author quickly switches to a tale that is perhaps supernatural, maybe nonsensical, definitely confusing, and it is extremely jarring. I don’t think I ever quite got back into the book. Is Charlie Shaw real? Is ANYTHING real?! It becomes ever more rambling and incoherent before finally sort of being pulled together in the last fifty-ish pages.

But I don’t think it’s enough to excuse the amount of time I felt completely disconnected and baffled. White Tears totally lost me on its spiral into bizarroland. It’s almost like the author vomited random words onto the page and the reader is left to decide whether they see something deep in said word vomit, or nothing at all. I’m afraid I’m mostly in the latter camp.

Part of me wants to rate this book higher because there were good parts. But, after some consideration, I feel like even at its best this was barely more than a 3-star read for me. At its worst, it was a real struggle to get through.

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Profile Image for Michelle.
651 reviews184 followers
January 26, 2018
Seth is obsessed with music. He hears it in the everyday cacophony of the city street. Each sound emancipating itself, bits parceled into musical arrangements. Awkward around people, he is befriended by Carter, a cock-sure socialite with an obsession for collecting rare Blues recordings. On his travels Seth records a chess player singing in the park. Carter posts it online and passes it off as the lone copy of an unheard of musician by the name of Charlie Shaw. A haunting song, the lyrics become the backdrop of what is to come. The first half of White Tears is about the music and White appropriation of Black culture.

“The names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about them. No information, not a scrap. 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.”

The second half of the book has alternating chapters of past and present running parallel courses. Like locomotives barreling forward, at times the storylines collide as their tracks cross. The reader is left disorientated, jarred, unable to set themselves right.

A ghost story? A horror? White Tears defies conventional labels. It is a testament to our times. Haunted by the sins of our past, horrified by our present condition in a post-racial society, Kunzru’s White Tears is an indictment of the systematic racism in America. I believe Kunzru means to make the reader uncomfortable. Too many times we as citizens are complacent -- idle bystanders who feel justified in our inactivity.

Phenomenal! Phenomenal Read.
Profile Image for Perry.
631 reviews502 followers
June 1, 2017
Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help.
Mahalia Jackson

"White folks hear the blues come out, but they don't know how it got there," said Son House, a Mississippi blues singer who made his start in the 1920s. The blues got there, it is generally acknowledged, via the adapted rhythms and methods of West African natives enslaved in the American South. One of the blues' most customary components came from the group work songs of the plantation slaves who used the African practice of "call and response," which bluesmen have most often transformed into a conversation between the singer and his guitar. It is no coincidence that the Mississippi delta region so rich in fertile soil for large plantations is the birthplace of a veritable Blues Who's Who, including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf.

In White Tears, novelist Hari Kunzru cleverly and ambitiously bares the wounds from which the blues bled, journeying from Manhattan to the Mississippi delta and from the present to the late 1950s and again to the late 1920s. With sinister strains threaded throughout, his novel scrutinizes white exploitation of black culture, the forced labor of black convicts through convict leasing to white farms (which some call "slavery by another name"), and related issues of race, class, poverty and musical authenticity.

The novel begins in Manhattan with Seth and Carter, best college buddies rooming together after bonding over a mutual love of black music. Seth recalls how "Carter taught me to worship--it's not too strong a word--what he worshipped. He listened exclusively to black music because ... it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people." According to Carter's sister, he "feels guilty for being a rich boy. That's why his heroes are always poor or black."

As it happens, Carter lives off a trust funded by his family which owns a conglomerate of construction, energy and private prison businesses. So, when the pair decides to open a recording studio, Carter has little problem bankrolling it, with Seth, a sound engineering whiz, managing the business. The talents of these "audio craftsmen, artisans of analog" have thrust them to the mat of success with a contract to record a successful white hip hop artist.

Seth often adds a variety of sounds to his audio bank by strolling about Manhattan with his parabolic mic and recorder. One afternoon upon playing back the sounds he recorded of nothing in particular near chess players in Washington Square, Seth is shocked to hear a haunting voice singing a blues song:

Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own
Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own
Put my enemies all down in the ground
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
Wrote his name all down my back

Carter pounces upon hearing the recording, and they stay "up until six in the morning, cleaning up the recording and deciphering the words...." Carter cooks up a guitar track over which to lay the mystifying voice and asks Seth to "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." Carter fakes a "scuffed and faded" recording label for a 1928 recording of what he labels "Charlie Shaw's Graveyard Blues," a "rarity" that he uploads to the internet. The collector trolls instantly trill. One going by the name "JumpJim" drills them about the song and pushes to know what is on side B, saying he has not heard Charlie Shaw's voice since 1959.

A suspicious hit and run leaves Carter comatose a third of the way into the novel and the buddy-centric thriller seems, in hindsight, like a bluesy vamp to the main numbers.

The story takes an ominous turn into the territory of noir mystery when Seth seeks out the collector to learn about his 1959 trip to Mississippi with an unscrupulous older collector who plucked Charlie Shaw's only recording from Shaw's voodoo-ish sister and of the ominous events leading to that man's shrieking end ablaze among his collection of authentic blues recordings.

Seth convinces Carter's sister to accompany him on a trek to the Mississippi delta to sleuth a possible link between the real Charlie Shaw, the counterfeit recording and the hit and run. This nightmare-like journey to the soul of the blues thrums with tension and a droning dread that calamity lurks around the corner. As they approach the delta, the menace intensifies and time starts to tilt.

In the novel's final, spectral phase, the past and present merge into a sort of discordant call and response. Time ultimately comes undone. Without giving too much away, readers learn of Captain Jack and how Charlie Shaw never made any more records when all he wanted was "to pass something on ... to reach forward, to obey the urge of life." Seth becomes alienated by circumstance and is shunned by Carter's family. The story pounds with the profane nature of a payback tinged with aspects of the supernatural and voodoo, and the novel ends with a shockingly unforgettable judder.

White Tears is a bold, formidable novel that is not for everyone. Yet, the venturesome reader will be rewarded as Kunzru explores the corrupted nature of "blaxploitation"; dredges the sordid past of the music from which "all ... American music derives its most distinctive characteristics" (James Weldon Johnson); pays tribute to the music's legacy infusing much of our culture today; and, vilifies the vinyl hipsters and their obsession over authenticity in the blues while they disregard the pain integral to the end product.
Profile Image for Trudie.
520 reviews553 followers
March 8, 2018
Now all the hahahahaha's towards the back of the book make sense.

This is truely an ambitious undertaking and deft piece of writing. It starts simply, but then slowly like the frog in the proverbial boiling water, you find your in some shapeshifting, ghostly fantasy novel and your not entirely sure whats going on. But you don't mind as it is flinging little truth bombs at you and your thinking how did Kunzru pull this highwire act off ?.

This is absolutely a novel I could turn around and read over again just to see how he constructed it. It is so easy to glance over those little odd time-slipping moments, just some weird deja vu stuff very cunningly placed while your mostly interested in other aspects. These moments gradually build up into something that you realise was there all along but the implications when the end comes are startling.
I am deliberately being vague about plot and character because the joy in reading this for me mostly came from not knowing where this was heading.
It is possible I loved this book so intently because I was predisposed to the music. Currently wrestling with the guitar on a daily basis, I appreciated that this novel could also double as a primer in the history of the early blues. I spent so much time listening to Willie Johnson's Future Blues and other old recordings referenced in this novel. You can absolutely hear the influence this Delta blues style has had on modern music and it is a testament to Kunzru skill as a writer that he makes all this old music come alive as well as to use it as a hook to pose questions on cultural appropriation (I delved down an interesting rabbit hole here with The Rolling Stones and Robert Wilkins song Prodical Son which is worth mulling over ) and the dark history that influences the blues style. Making the time to track down some of these songs adds an extra layer of haunting melancholy to the reading experience.

White Tears in my opinion absolutely should be discussed with some of the other big-hitting novels of 2017 namely Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo - all with a similar "ghostly'' element to them.

It feels like panning for gold sometimes, finding these 5-star reads but I am very happy to have found my second one for the year.

Read it, read it ..... even if your not into the blues !
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,160 reviews2,009 followers
May 1, 2017
I always enjoy reviewing the books I have read but every so often I come up against one where I honestly cannot think what to say about it! This is one of those books.
I enjoyed it very much - the writing is beautiful - but I would have great difficulty trying to explain what it is about. I suppose it is a ghost story in part, also a bit of horror thrown in - rather like a good Stephen King really. But there is so much more - music, racism, slavery, the cultural divide between rich and poor and more.
See - I found something to say after all even if it is a bit disjointed. I can only recommend reading it to discover its meaning for yourself:)
Profile Image for Ace.
431 reviews23 followers
December 13, 2017
Whoa, that was awesome. I don't normally get into the supernatural but if they were all written like this, then I'd have a lot of catching up to do. Another book exploring the intense passion of creativity (which reminded me of The Animators) and the intense cruelty and injustice of slavery and the music industry just after the turn of the century. How Kunzru crammed so much history and commentary into this little book is astounding. Now, if only he had used quotation marks, he would have been my new favourite author.
Profile Image for Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac).
660 reviews587 followers
April 24, 2017
Kunzru has plunked a couple young white men—obsessed with the Blues, with audio of all kinds—down into a mysterious, deeply American story of race, music, and violence, one steeped in Murikamiesque juices. Compulsively readable, the best and most important American novel I've read since Beloved—and penned by a biracial Indo-British writer in the US less than a decade! Like me, you might feel woozy, might get lost in this novel. I sure hope so.
Profile Image for Mona.
467 reviews281 followers
June 24, 2018

This novel is a tour de force that only an author with writing chops as good as Hari Kunzru's could have pulled off.

It's full of endless unforeseable surprises and twists and turns. The narrative at some points starts to veer uncontrollably between different times and places. Even identities become blurred, with several characters bleeding into each other (literally and figuratively). At one point, a particular character is no longer sure what color he is.

Seth (his name is no accident, I think; Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after they lost Abel) is the narrator and main character. Although at various points he suffers from episodes that could be construed as psychotic,
he is a generally honest and reliable narrator.

Seth befriends wealthy hipster Carter Wallace in college. They later move to New York and go into the music production business together. Seth also has an unrequited passion for Carter's beautiful artist sister, Leonie. All of these characters are white, which gives the reader a hint about the meaning of the title, which isn't fully revealed until the novel's end.

Seth records ambient sound on his travels around the city. One day he plays Carter a recording of a black guy singing a few strange and unexplainable lines after winning an outdoor chess match in Washington Square Park.

Carter becomes obsessed with this rough soundtrack, and here the trouble starts.

Neither Seth nor the reader have any idea what they are getting themselves into when they start the book.

Things quickly devolve into a dark, disturbing, and frightening narrative of nightmarish woe.

A major subplot that weaves in and out of the main story involves Chester Bly, an obsessive white collector of old blue records and his much younger coworker, nicknamed Jumpjim. By the time Seth meets Jim and hears his cautionary tale Jim is a very old man.

A central theme, of course, is race in America, but the book is about much more.

Another theme is old blues recordings, and if you love the blues (think Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Leadbelly for example), this book will be right up your alley. The book elucidates the way white people love and steal black music without any benefit to the black musicians who made the music.

I could certainly identify with Seth's feeling of invisibility. He feels that because he is neither rich nor powerful nor handsome, people just ignore him. This is an accurate perception. But..there are lots of other clues that Seth misses, perhaps because his own harrowing tale...and his white privilege...blind him to some extent.

I won't say much more to avoid spoilers, except that by the work's end the meaning of the strange song of the chess player is revealed.

Highly recommended. It's creepy and scary and brilliantly and lyrically written. Not for the faint of heart though.

In fact, I'm surprised this novel and its author aren't better known. Maybe it's the disurbing nature of the book and its themes that have limited its audience. I kind of stumbled on it myself. This is Booker prizeworthy material.

P.S. The audio is also brilliantly read by a cast of three.
Profile Image for Paul Secor.
546 reviews46 followers
June 4, 2018
Hari Kunzru has written a novel which, at least in part, seems to be a fable about punishment for a family's sins being passed down to its descendants and a friend.
There's also a connected tale which implies that if white folks mess with black music, some sort of hoodoo spell will be laid on them.
I wasn't grabbed by any of that. What I did take from this book is to be wary of novels about rich folks. Rich folks can be boring and treacherous - a deadly combination.
And if I ever see another book where the photograph of the author shows him or her striking a pretentious hipster pose, give it a wide, wide berth.

I guess those are two worthwhile lessons. That shows me that I can even learn something from a book that I hated.

I believe that one intent of this novel was to speak about racism in America. I've read other books that speak to me about racism in a more real and moving way. This one is going back to the library, never to defile my home with its presence again.
Profile Image for George Jr..
Author 3 books13 followers
February 12, 2017
This is a terrible book. The received stature of the author makes that a surprise, but it is terrible nonetheless.

Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter's family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians' names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can't hear African-American music past Beyonce is a tell).

This all turns into an overwrought poitboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,744 reviews4,164 followers
April 6, 2017
I know I talk about books in terms of 'halves' or 'thirds' or 'quarters' a lot. It's something I've been telling myself to do less of. But sometimes it's absolutely necessary, and White Tears is one such case: it's very much a book of two halves.

Seth is an awkward, lonely college student who's obsessed with sound, and traverses New York making recordings of everyday background noise: Carter, who becomes his best friend and business partner, is the black-sheep scion of an obscenely rich family, and very into music – specifically, and exclusively, black music. During one of Seth's recording sessions, he catches an ageing chess player singing a snatch of an old blues tune. He remembers it as a single, throwaway line, remembers turning away after that to watch a pretty girl skateboard past, but when he listens back to the recording, it's a whole melancholy, beautiful song. The two friends develop an unhealthy fixation with it. Then they find a completely separate recording, of someone playing a guitar tune, that fits perfectly with the song. Carter uploads the resulting track to a torrent, pretending it's by a made-up pre-war musician named Charlie Shaw – and then an elderly collector turns up with a story about a friend, back in the 1950s, whose life was consumed by an obsession with a rare record: 'Graveyard Blues' by Charlie Shaw.

The first half of the book, which deals with all of the above, is flat-out brilliant. The narrative moves forward with a compelling, irresistible force; the plot is absolutely thrilling; Seth's voice, note-perfect. This part of the book is also incredibly subtle and clever in the way it undermines its characters – mainly Carter and his rich kid's obnoxious nonchalance, but Seth isn't let off the hook – and is critical of them without condemning them.

Then the plot takes a sharp turn that either works for you or it doesn't. I'm in the latter camp, mostly. As the unreality of the narrative is heightened – temporal slips, shifts in identity, timelines splitting and histories repeating – the story of the song falls into the background and becomes unimportant. The tightly controlled plot is replaced by a loose and jagged series of moments, with Seth entering a broken mental state in which he may or may not have been possessed by the spirit of the original Charlie Shaw. It is, effectively, a horror story about the consequences of thoughtless appropriation. Whether the cause is supernatural ('Charlie' taking revenge on those who would take his voice, his music) or not (Seth's fragile mental health being exacerbated by his guilt and, at this point, exhaustion) remains deliberately obscure. What Kunzru is trying to do is clear, but the execution is disappointingly messy and heavy-handed. There is a very, very fine line between effective slipstream fiction and nonsense, and these parts of White Tears are too frequently on the wrong side of it.

I get the point. I get that the whole aim of White Tears is to make you think you're reading one sort of story, the sort of story you've loved before – to make you comfortable in a litfic-with-added-fantasy bubble – and then violently wrest you out of it, obliterate that cosiness, castigate you for failing to recognise the problems with these characters. But for it to really work, the first part would have to be weaker and less compelling than the second, and that's just not the case. Missing out on the alternate, complete version of that initial wonderful story made me feel mildly annoyed with the rest of it for trying to be a Novel with a Message.

Four stars might seem like a high rating given the above complaints, and really it's probably more of a 3.5, but I'm rounding up for the absolute compulsiveness and smooth-flowing brilliance of the first half, and for the book's ambition and ingenuity. Despite the problems, it's definitely worth reading.

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Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,106 followers
June 21, 2019
As the famous Faulkner quote goes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”

Old blues recordings, with their staticky crackle and keening vocals, have a certain creepy factor, so making them the basis for a horror/ghost story is a stroke of genius. White Tears’ author, Hari Kunzru, made an awesome Spotify playlist to accompany his book, which I attempted to listen to immediately after reading… I made it through two and a half tracks before hitting STOP, horripilating with genuine unease. Hearing these spectral voices from 90-odd years ago really does feel like an aural visitation from the dead.

This novel is one slooooow burn. Kunzru really takes his time building up the layers; probably the first two-thirds of the novel lays the groundwork. Maintaining the thin, taut thread of tension for such a long stretch is a big ask, but it pays off. Next, the story rapidly descends into a scrambled nightmare of non-linear time. As a reader, you definitely need to stay alert or you will quickly feel lost.

From there you emerge into clear air and a final act delivering the polar opposite perspective to the ones that came before, recasting the whole novel in different light. It’s a deeply satisfying ending, even though the various time slippages and other strange phenomena remain unexplained.

White Tears extracts a lot from its sharp premise: Collectors claiming to appreciate art, to be conservators, when all they are doing is commodifying, de-contextualizing and ultimately destroying it; Racism and the legacies of historical violence and exploitation, manifesting as cultural appropriation. Kunzru interprets the ‘never dead’ past as a literal haunting to chilling effect. 4 stars.
Profile Image for David.
652 reviews303 followers
February 20, 2018
The first half of the book sets up our hipster duo worshipping at the shrine of old black music. Deemed "more intense and authentic than anything made by white people." Carter is a trust-fund douchebag that sports blond dreadlocks in college while DJ'ing and Seth is a "sonic geologist" riding Carter's monied coattails.

When Seth captures snippets of a song while travelling the city doing field recordings Carter matches it against a guitar riff recorded elsewhere and they fit perfectly together. The two fuzz it up and pawn it off as a long forgotten blues artist. They fabricate the name of Charlie Shaw and call the frankensteined track Graveyard Blues. When someone reaches out saying they haven't heard Charlie Shaw since 1959 things get a little crazy.

What starts off as a biting satire on cultural appropriation turns into a blues ghost story that becomes full-on Korean revenge drama. The second half goes a bit off the rails but I can't begrudge the fun Kunzru has at our hipster protagonists' expense early on.
Profile Image for jo.
613 reviews487 followers
July 12, 2017
this is the first book i read -- but surely there must be others, right? please tell me there are others -- that tackles squarely, that is to say front and center, the theme of whiteness in america (C.E. Morgan's The Sport of Kings does so too, but it taints the effort, in my opinion, by devoting almost half the book to a story told from a black man's point of view, which has always been dicey when done by a white author -- see William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner-- but seems particularly tone deaf now that we are all awakening, or woking up, hopefully). and let me get out of the way that hari kunzru is neither white, black, nor american, having been born in england to an indian father and a white mother, and having lived in the states, with apparently a number of misgivings, for only 10 years.

white people have always caused and continue to cause untold misery and often decimation to non-white people, and non-white people have tried to tell us -- the well-meaning us, the decent white folks who wouldn't hurt a fly -- what other us were doing in our name, and we have always done what we could, from sheer acts of heroism to serious political commitment, to gestures of protest and compensation. since a lot of the effort of letting us know has happened in the written form, there are countless books written by non-white people about non-whiteness, including a mammoth chunk of books by american black people about american blackness, and i'm not entirely sure we, even those of us who believe very deeply in equality, make a point of reading them. we of course would benefit much from them, both in terms of literary delight and in terms of learning.

and then there are some books written by white people about non-whiteness, including books written by american whites about blackness, and those are a bit disturbing and a bit wrong and for the most part misguided, cuz, dear white people, why do you write about blackness instead of writing about whiteness? white is a race too you know?

but since white is perceived, or non-perceived, by most of us as the default of humanity -- meaning, there are people and they are assumed to be white and if they are not you point it out -- very few white people know how to write about whiteness as a race. in fact, if my personal experience of reading is anything to go by (and i sure hope it isn't!), no one does!

hari kunzru jumped bravely into this breach and let me dispel immediately any notion that his book is boring and didactic cuz it most certainly is not. it's a riveting ghost story about music, love, wealth, music, music, and the troubled, unreciprocated love of white people for black culture. in an illuminating interview with CBC kunzru explicitly says that this book is a tribute to, and maybe an offspring of, BLM (if you don't know what this stands for please google it and read some of what comes up, cuz if you don't know what BLM is you will not understand this book, including its title).

as i read this riveting, painful and woundrous book i kept thinking, wow kunzru is really magic to have written a book that in some ways is a thesis (the thesis being, white people tread all over blackness without noticing it, and then take ALL THE CREDIT for whatever good comes to them from using black work and culture) and make it fun! but then i realized that this thought was a direct product of the fact that this is the first novel i read that puts american whiteness and its shame front and center. cuz, really, isn't every book the carrier of a thesis, if you want to make it such?

so this book is, yes, built around a thesis, but most importantly it's built around a story, and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat. it is the story of charlie shaw, an early blues musicians, a guitar maverick, and of a nichey but sizable group of (white, default) record collectors who are on the hunt for his (one?) recording. all sorts of trouble ensues. ghosts show up and enter the body of people, as ghosts sometimes do, and make them do terrible things which are only the things that were done to them. but these people get away with it cuz they are white and not black, and white gets passes all the time, everywhere, daily, and we don't even know it. and the white people in the world cry a lot, from sorrow and a profound sense of injustice, and their tears are white, just like the color of their skin.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
December 23, 2021
"Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own
Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own
Put my enemies all down in the ground
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
Wrote his name all down my back"--Charlie Shaw

Charlie Shaw's Revenge

Thanks to Jeff L for recommending this book that I otherwise would not have read. So we know from the title the book is about, among other things, race. It features two twenty-something white dudes, Carter and Seth, who are starting their own music production business. Seth, our main character, is a kind of nerd, but a maybe gifted musical engineer. Carter is a rich hipster, funding the initial work out of trust fund money; he's interested in recording ambient sound and he also loves collecting old blues music, though neither of these (white) hipster boys has any sense of the long historical and continuing tragedy of Black America. They don't really get the blues or where they come from. They care about blues artifacts, and there seems to be some indication that at least Carter is emotionally unstable, though this may have as much to do with drug use as anything else.

"We really did feel 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. We didn't want to be mistaken for the kind of suburban white boys who post pictures of themselves holding malt liquor bottles and throwing gang signs."

The plot ignites when Seth discovers two things on tape he recorded but doesn't recall: a capella vocal and separate instrumental that he may have recorded in Washington Square Park. They put the two together and create a track out of it, claiming they have found a long-lost blues recording, naming the artist Charlie Shaw. A scam. So that's the set-up, the first half, after which something surprising and troubling happens.

“Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world. Marconi thought that if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to ancient times.”

The second half is an Alice's Wonderland surreal nightmare trip that begins when someone tells them the artist they claim to have invented actually exists. And Seth travels with Carter's sister Leonie to the Deep South in search of clues. What they discover is the long history of Black experience, largely ignored by white American culture. It becomes a story of cultural appropriation, greed and tragedy, where the past blends with the present. Increasingly, we are in a nightmare, and the ending reveals something chilling. A horror story of racism, well done, a kind of ghost story you don't expect in the first half.

"On your record deck, you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn't have, the authority you thought it would bring. It scared you, but you thought of the swagger it would put in your walk, the admiring glances of your friends. Then came the terror when real darkness first seeped through the walls of your bedroom, the walls designed to keep you safe and dreaming. And finally your rising sense of shame when you admitted to yourself that you were relieved the walls were there. The shame of knowing that you would do nothing, that you would allow it all to carry on."

Kunzru hates clueless white hipster vinyl collectors and the greedy abusive music industry and the (in the main) culturally blind white listening audience. But make not mistake: Hari Kunzru invites you to love the blues, and even shares a spotify list of great blues music you may not be aware of, but he encourages you to understand where it came from and to no longer participate in black erasure as you listen:

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