Seth was a quiet, standoffish, broke college kid when he first became friends with the wealthy and popular Carter Wallace. Obsessed with sound recording, Seth was testing out some new equipment he’d cobbled together when Carter approached him, asked about the set-up, and then invited him to his dorm to listen to music. Seth had previously avoided older music, believing that “there were certain echoes I couldn’t afford to hear.” But Carter was fascinated with the music of black musicians from the past, and as his obsession with collecting old, rare recordings grew, Seth came along.
After graduation, the two set up a studio, bankrolled by Carter, and their sound is in high demand. Seth spends his free time wandering New York, picking up ambient sounds of the city. Then, one day, he picks up a bit of blues music he’s never heard.
On the audio, I can hear the change in the position of my head, the mics over each ear picking up a slightly different range as I swing round to listen. I don’t know how to explain what happens next. My memory is clear. There was a skater, a girl. You can hear the rumble of a deck, but it’s in the background. I distinctly remember turning to watch her. I saw long black hair, tattooed sleeves, a nice ass in cutoffs, weaving between dog walkers. How would I know that if I hadn’t turned? But the audio shows I didn’t.
Seth doesn’t think much of it, but when Carter hears the recording—which includes a complete song, not just the single line that Seth remembered hearing—he becomes obsessed with it. And when he creates a fake 1920s singer named Charlie Shaw and uploads the file to the internet, things get complicated. Turns out, there really was a blues singer named Charlie Shaw. Or was there?
There’s a lot going on in this novel by Hari Kunzru. At first, it seems like a standard realistic novel with a little weirdness around the edges, but it takes a turn and becomes full-on strange. As Carter, and then Seth, try to understand what is happening, there are jumps back in time, starting as flashbacks but turning into (maybe?) something else. Whatever is going on, it’s dangerous.
This novel is dealing with issues of cultural ownership and appropriation. Seth and Carter’s sound relies heavily on the art of others. Carter’s mania for collecting the work of black artists feels like a desire to possess something that isn’t his. Later in the book, there are also questions around whether Seth or Carter really own the work they’ve done together. These are all interesting questions, but I wonder if plot sometimes gets in the way of them.
Once the strange happenings begin, the story flips and reverses and turns in on itself in so many ways that it becomes impossible to work out what’s really happening. Maybe Kunzru is attempting to get at the impossibility around finding the real roots of a piece of art, because influences can be all over the place. There’s a conversation toward the end about how Charlie himself is a product of other people’s ideas of who he’s supposed to be. (Or is he? Was that conversation real? The deeper questions get lost in the questions about the plot.)
For me, the twists and turns ended up being too much, especially as the book’s pacing picked up. There are also new ideas, such as about the prison industrial complex, thrown in at the end. An important subject, but coming as late in the story as it does, it seems like a late addition to create character motivation.
Also, the first part of the book didn’t provide enough menace and unease to lay the groundwork for the messy, more horror-laden second half. I felt about this the way I often do when so-called literary writers play with genre fiction. It’s straight literary fiction that becomes horror instead of being chilling all way through. (Compare with Universal Harvester, a literary horror novel that’s all horror set-up and turns literary with little horror payoff.) I’d rather read a book that’s committed to what it is from the start.