At first, Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears’’ seems to be a novel that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It starts off looking as if it’s about hipsterism but ends up being about race (though part of Kunzru’s argument is that you can’t separate the two). It’s a scrupulously researched look at the history of the blues that transmogrifies midway into a nightmarish ghost story. It meditates on temporal porousness — as the narrator says, “I was always slipping into the past. Is to was” — and also offers a radical critique of America’s prison industrial complex. It represents, with great power, the affective experience of listening to music while also thinking about how this experience is mediated by technology and history.
Yet what is most impressive about this truly impressive novel is how integrated these apparently disparate parts are, how “White Tears’’ reads less like a grab bag of Kunzru’s obsessions (a crucial word in this text) than a coherent, if disturbing, vision of what America has meant and continues to mean. At one point, Seth, the novel’s narrator, claims that his “memory is a mystical conspiracy of connections.” So too is this novel, which finds a Pynchon-like conspiracy of capitalism, racism, and various forms of appropriation at the root of American existence.
The novel, though, doesn’t start off in Pynchon Country. Rather, the first 50 pages take place in the kind of territory — a “liberal arts college upstate” followed by a “loft in Greenpoint” — and feature the kinds of white characters that we’re familiar with from other works of contemporary fiction — Seth, a tech-obsessed music producer who prefers analog experimentation to “the strange Adderall obsessiveness of the digital studio” and Carter Wallace, his super-rich, blues-obsessed college friend and musical partner who “listen[s] exclusively to black music because . . . it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.” Think Dana Spiotta crossed with Michael Chabon.
But then, something strange happens. One day Seth, walking through Washington Square with a tape recorder collecting “pockets of sound I’d moved through without knowing,” accidentally captures a chess player singing something Seth doesn’t recognize. (Sample lyric: “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.”) Carter, without Seth’s knowledge, then performs an act of musical legerdemain — cleaning up the background noise, manipulating the file to make it sound like a 1920s blues song, and loading the tune onto a file-sharing website, complete with a faked provenance. He claims that the song was recorded by a made-up musician named Charlie Shaw; visitors promptly flip over this “discovered” masterpiece.
Then, some really strange things happen. A collector with the online name JumpJim contacts Carter, demanding information about the record and claiming that Shaw and the record are both real. Carter is assaulted and beaten into a coma under strange circumstances. In the hopes of figuring out what the hell is going on, Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie drive from New York City to Mississippi — the supposed recording place of the supposedly fictional but perhaps real Shaw song and also the place where the Wallace family first made its wealth.
Seth and Leonie’s trip, we learn, reenacts a trip that JumpJim took with another collector long ago, when they would “go into Negro neighborhoods in the Delta and knock on doors to ask if they had old records.” As Seth moves south, time and identity begin to bleed and then blur — an overlaying of temporalities and selves familiar from Kunzru’s last novel, “Gods Without Men.’’ The writing becomes uncanny, the world it describes lurid and frightening. Verb tenses start to wobble: “I was walking, and I had always been walking, I have always been walking, I am walking.”
It becomes difficult for Seth, and the reader, to differentiate Seth from JumpJim, now from then, the real from the imagined, cultural violence (the white appropriation of a traditionally black art form) from physical violence (the imprisonment and forced labor of young black men — a primary source of the Wallace fortune). The book is haunted by America’s legacy of racism, and Seth is haunted, even inhabited, by actual ghosts, Shaw’s among them. We start off in a familiar fictional landscape; we end up in an expressionistic hellscape.
The novel’s final 100 pages are simultaneously hallucinatory and revelatory. In leading us surrealistically toward the heart of the blues, “White Tears’’ offers a realistic, far-ranging analysis of how capitalistic accumulation depends upon exploitation and how frequently this exploitation has depended upon racial violence. This balancing of the nightmarish and the clear-eyed is superb, and “White Tears’’ is Kunzru’s best book yet.
By Hari Kunzru
Knopf, 271 pp., $26.95
Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.