In his fifth novel, Hari Kunzru confronts America’s racially stained history through an ingenious premise: the eerie appearance of a 1920s blues song in contemporary New York, where two young white men obsessed with black music persuade themselves that they’ve made the record.
It’s a sly setup for a book that takes on the controversial topic of cultural appropriation, whereby the ethnic majority adopts or even attempts to co-opt the cultural elements of an ethnic minority. The meaning of the term referenced in the title White Tears is elastic, but in essence it describes the propensity of some white people (even, and perhaps especially, those who regard themselves as enlightened) to focus on their own feelings and responses in issues involving race, instead of acknowledging their privileged position.
In the case of the two 20-something Brooklyn hipsters in Kunzru’s novel, connoisseurship of the blues is a ticket to a kind of personal cachet that neither feels in possession of on his own. Seth, socially awkward and still recovering from a vaguely described nervous breakdown after the death of his mother, worries that he’s a parasitic presence in the life of his buddy Carter, heir to a fortune his family has built on their private prisons and security business.
Carter himself is uncomfortable with the privilege that his wealth conveys. He doesn’t like to discuss money at all, though he’s happy to use it to finance his and Seth’s budding music business and to pursue a passion for collecting old blues records. “He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if ‘white people’ were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn’t belong.”
Seth, a devoted audiophile, takes long walks through the city, during which he makes surreptitious recordings. One day, Seth records a man in a park singing a haunting blues song, and Carter urges him to create a “recording,” with crackles and hisses to make it sound old. Carter posts the resulting file online as a period recording by a singer whom he dubs Charlie Shaw, and collectors clamor to buy it. One in particular, with the handle JumpJim, insists that the man and the record really existed.
Carter celebrates this bizarre development as the ultimate imprimatur of authenticity. Carter hopes to parlay the interest in the fake Charlie Shaw record into the purchase of other rare records from the mysterious JumpJim. Unfortunately, a disaster soon sidelines Carter – by far the more interesting of the duo. Seth and Carter’s sister, a troubled artist on whom Seth has a hopeless crush, are thrown together as they attempt to solve the ghostly historical mystery surrounding the record and how it may be entwined with Carter’s fate.
As he’s done in some of his other novels, notably his rightly acclaimed "Gods Without Men," Kunzru begins hopscotching through time and geography. He takes his characters and his readers on not one but two road trips through the American South and leaves his narrator, Seth, for firsthand accounts of JumpJim and, finally, the half-figmentary Charlie Shaw himself.
The trouble is that our primary guide through the kudzu of history that "White Tears: creates is Seth, a young man afflicted with self-loathing and social anxiety, the kind of storyteller who has to resort to college-essay tactics to tackle a big subject:
"When did I lose touch with the future? I remember how imminent it used to feel, how exciting.... Now I would say the future is behind me. It is, in any case, out of my reach. It would be easy to put the blame on Carter, on his melancholy attachment to the crackle and hiss, but I bear my share of responsibility. I let myself fall. Nostalgia: from the Greek “nostos” – homecoming – and “algos” pain or ache: the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again. Now I am nostalgic for the future, which was my native land."
Seth is so listless that he excites only a cerebral pity. He remains a cipher, dispossessed from the business he and Carter built by Carter’s parents and older brother, and barely tolerated by Carter’s sister. After a cameo by his father, his own family doesn’t figure at all in the story. Seth says early on that he “made a run for it, away from human history and its dark places,” and he’s as good as his word. He has no context and spends a lot of the book adrift, seemingly so he can be a fly on the wall for Kunzru’s project. Eventually, this function is literalized: He’s simply a tool.
The character of Charlie Shaw isn’t fully embodied either, though for different reasons. His short, shattered life seems like a carapace in which to fit the reflexive lock-him-up racism of a local policeman, the rages of a prison chain gang overseer, and the casual appropriation by record companies whose representatives traveled the South panning for musical gold but leaving the musicians themselves behind.
JumpJim is the most fully realized of Kunzru’s narrators, though he gets a fraction of the airtime Seth does. The sections in which JumpJim describes his youthful road trip through the South in the 1950s with a veteran record collector and heroin addict named Chester Bly are among the book’s most engaging. In one memorable scene, a patrolman in a small southern town stops the car in which they are traveling as they seek out rare records. Wary that they may be civil rights agitators, the trooper makes a veiled threat. Chester responds that he’s a “proud American. I stand with the white man, one hundred percent.”
Afterward, JumpJim reflects on the exchange: “I don’t think Chester meant a word of it. No one could have loved that music so much and harbored a speck of racial prejudice. All the same I felt ashamed. It seemed wrong to have said what he said. For a moment I wished I really had driven along those bumpy roads to register people to vote, to tell them they ought to be free.” This conflict is the dark heart of the book, but it seldom emerges with clarity in Seth’s meandering narration.
Cultural appropriation is a natural subject for Kunzru, who’s displayed an intense curiosity about an astonishingly diverse cast of characters, from the half-Indian, half-English protagonist of his debut novel, "The Impressionist," to the lonely Indian computer coder in Silicon Valley in "Transmission," to the middle-aged onetime English radical in "My Revolutions," to the chorus of characters – 19th-century silver miners and ethnographers of native Americans, 1970s UFO cult members, Iraqi emigrants, a disconsolate British rock star, the parents of an autistic boy who goes missing in the desert – whose narratives together form his kaleidoscopic last novel, "Gods Without Men."
Unfortunately, the characters in "White Tears" are missing the blood and heart that would bring this important story to life. There’s a painstaking quality to the novel that’s reminiscent of Carter and Seth’s studious reproduction of that old record. An agenda of condemnation appears to have overtaken the curiosity that has allowed Kunzru to imaginatively inhabit so many different people. In arraying himself against his book’s appropriators, racists, wealthy elites, and corporate opportunists, he has transmuted his considerable literary gifts into a weapon that seeks out its targets, again and again.