It’s proved to be difficult quieting my thoughts to write this review. Kunzru’s satirical novel about two young, starkly Caucasian music aficionados with a fetish for rare records turned out to be more affecting than I anticipated.
Seth and Carter embody a friendship of expediency reminiscent of the Gatsby Gatsby. The latter has the means to satisfy his every whim, and the former gets to mooch off him it in exchange for his minor talents and his unquestioning loyalty.
Carter is the beleaguered soul who yearns for intensity which he insists can only be found in Black music. His wealthy family- who are strangers to the pain and suffering he touristically seeks- warily fund his expensive appetite for rare pre-war blues records, and the inevitable tirade in glamourous surroundings when he loses out on a rare find.
Kunzru has no patience with the trust-funder’s empty quest for authenticity – a full-time occupation of the hipster generation-and to the reader’s relief lands him in a coma following an incident involving a failed attempt at another acquisition.
Seth attributes Carters tragic misfortune to a curious chain of events stemming from a surreptitious recording of a vagrant singing a mysterious blues tune, which Carter sets to a guitar riff, adds effects and attempts to pass off online as a recently discovered lost recording by a made up ‘Charlie Shaw’.
Prior to the incident the recording draws the attention of an elderly collector who meets with Seth and warns of its sinister power. Unconvinced by Seth’s insistence that Charlie Shaw was a fiction concocted by his friend, the collector attributes his own friend Chester’s demise to the the record’s ominous power.
Now spooked by Carter’s fate, Seth embarks on a road trip to trace the provenance of the record and rid himself of any lingering malevolence. His journey switches between that of Chester’s in 1959 as they both head deep into the south drawn by something to do with Charlie.
The object of fascination throughout the book has been black music, and up until this point it has been offered, withheld, traded and consumed by talentless white men who function as the self-appointed gatekeepers of cool.
The readers discover’s how Chester brutally snatches the sole recording from Charlie’s sister’s home in 1959, manically insisting it was an “act of preservation”- the foundational belief for almost every museum collection in the west. This perennial white privilege is in full effect when Carter withholds “our music” from a musician, having done nothing more than amass a secret stash of hyper rarities from the 70’s, to equate ownership in his mind.
This entitlement is emblematic of the tone deaf nature of gentrification where incidents of disruption to black culture e.g. complains of “noise” by new white homeowners made against old time resident musicians or block parties, have increasingly plagued the original inhabitants.
The claim to non-white culture, disrespect, and indifferent to the conditions of its creation and ultimately the fate of the artist, is what finally awakens the wrath of Charlie Shaw, who bedevils Carter, Chester and finally Seth like a Djinn.
Although we hear of Carter and Chester’s fate, with Seth we witness the relentless torment which leads to his ultimate demise. How Charlie, knowing no bounds, weaves through time and space in hot pursuit of Seth, and how Seth after a number of outer body experiences learns what it means to have ‘skin’ in the game. Seth’s eventual release from this torment comes when he ends his own complicity through a violent and earth-shattering act.
Kunzru’s White Tears is a tour de force. Suspenseful, harrowing and bristling with anger. Some went so far as to call it a revenge fantasy, I, however, could reconcile myself with the horror in the way I would a fairy tale. I was deeply affected by the historic crimes against a community and the undercurrent of racism that fuels the powerful compounding and even institutionalisation of cruelty, but when just deserts are eventually served it helped restore my equilibrium. That I should derive so much joy from this book should give a whole lot of white people pause for thought.