“White Tears,” the fifth novel from author Hari Kunzru, begins as a coming-of-age story, takes a turn into surrealism and horror, and ultimately reveals itself to be a gritty moral fable about cultural appropriation — specifically about white people’s relationship to black music.
At college, our narrator, Seth, is the kind of weird, introverted gearhead who dresses like a “homeless computer scientist” and builds a special mic to eavesdrop on his college classmates. Then one miraculous day, campus celebrity Carter Wallace taps him on the shoulder and invites him to come back to his dorm room and listen to music. Carter is a trustafarian with “a blond beard plaited into a sort of fashionable rope.” His audio setup includes a pair of British monitors that hung in the studio at Abbey Road. Carter “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.” That’s fine with Seth. Happier than he’s ever been in his life, he just goes with the flow, riding shotgun in the candy-apple red ’67 Ford Galaxie on trips to buy rare 78s.
After graduation, the boys move together to New York, where they set up shop as a recording studio and before long are “on the verge of becoming famous.” Seth begins wandering around the city, recording ambient audio. One of these recordings captures a few lines of a blues lyric sung by a passer-by. Oddly, when Seth gets home, the playback somehow contains an entire performance lasting several minutes. Carter goes ape. Obsessed with the clip, he discovers in Seth’s city recordings the guitar part for the same song. Again, Seth has no idea where it came from, but he helps put the two together and add some old-timey hiss. Then Carter puts it on the internet with a fake scuffed-up label, attributing it to a made-up musician named Charlie Shaw.
Up to this point, the plot is a little strange, what with the inexplicable sound clips, but it’s about to get a whole lot stranger. Record collectors on the internet fall on the hoax like wolves; Carter mentions a price of $50,000. One of the interested parties, “JumpJim,” says he hasn’t heard Charlie Shaw since 1959. From this point on, Charlie Shaw is treated as real person, a silenced musician with living relatives and angry avengers.
Carter, the only person who could possibly clear up the Charlie Shaw situation, is beaten nearly to death in the Bronx and remains incommunicado for the rest of the book. Why this happens or who is responsible is never explained; Seth assumes it somehow relates to the music clip. Carter’s family won’t even let Seth visit his friend in the hospital; only sexy, jaded, blonde sister Leonie will even speak to him. When Seth and Leonie go on a road trip down South to try to understand what happened to Carter, catastrophic physical harm awaits them, including one scene where Seth is treated so violently by the police that he starts to wonder if he is still white. It seems he has turned black and stumbled into the Jim Crow South.
Like James Hannaham’s “Delicious Foods” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” “White Tears” uses magical realist elements to capture aspects of the history of racism. But for this reader, the novel’s punishment of its characters seems to outweigh their crime, making two somewhat generic white fanboys the surrogates for centuries of theft and violence. If I were a character in “White Tears,” that opinion would probably get me shot. In any case, this British Indian writer’s thoroughly researched and musically savvy take on the situation adds fuel to the fire of the discussion about cultural appropriation.