I read about Hari Kunzru’s White Tears on Other Jenny’s blog a few months ago. I doubt I would have read it if it hadn’t been for her review, but she hooked me with her description of the book as a scary Southern Gothic ghost story (written by a Kashmiri British guy.) It’s the story of two college kids: Seth, who comes from not much, and Carter, who comes from huge money and privilege. They are both obsessed with audio, and particularly the history of it, ancient blues records from the twenties and thirties. They set up a business together after college, making analog recordings. One day, when Seth is out in New York, making ambient-sound recordings that he can use as background for his work, he accidentally records part of a blues song, something that catches at him in a way he didn’t expect and can’t explain. Carter becomes obsessed with the song, and, without Seth’s knowledge, puts the song out on the Internet, claiming it’s by an invented blues singer from the 1930s named Charlie Shaw. But then it turns out that Charlie Shaw was real. (Maybe.) And then things start to go really wrong.
Jenny and Teresa had different reactions to this book. Jenny was really frightened by it, whereas Teresa thought the literary-fiction wasn’t strong enough to hold up the scarier, more horrory second part of the book. Personally, I didn’t think the book was very scary (I’ve read scarier!), but as a thought experiment I found it fascinating.
Kunzru asks the question: what if, when white people appropriated or exploited another culture, they had to pay reparations? Not just financial reparations, but some kind of personal, emotional, or physical reparations? What if it were even a life for a life? Is that a horror story? And is that a horror story for the white people, or is it a horror story for the people who were exploited, enslaved, impoverished, and killed in the first place?
Seth and Carter (especially Carter) are set up as casual appropriators. From Carter’s tattoo of Mexican calaveras, to his daps and fist bumps, to his insistence that “black music” is “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people,” we get the pervasive sense that Carter feels he owns this culture, the way he owns his music equipment. In fact, he says so, at the cathartic moment when he’s put Charlie Shaw’s music on the Internet and everyone believes it’s real:
These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!
It turns out that Carter’s family is also deeply involved, not just in appropriation — in “owning” black culture — but in exploiting and oppressing it, and that this is the source of their wealth. There was a scene about a third of the way through the book at the family’s home in Virginia that reminded me of the film Get Out, with all the African-American servants and the white people sipping mint juleps. (That was a great movie, by the way, if you, like me, didn’t see it for a while.)
Kunzru rolls this around for a while, as things get worse and worse, first for Carter and then for Seth. What would happen, he asks, if someone had to pay for this? If it didn’t mean just throwing money at the solution? And whose horror story is that, really? He doesn’t offer a facile answer to that question. The terror of Charlie Shaw’s revenge tears Seth and Carter’s lives apart, as we slowly learn what happened to Charlie. The bitterness of racial history in this country is the root of the horror here.
For me, this book worked because I liked its bones. I admit to being seriously bored by the audiophile stuff (way too much detail!), and not very entranced by the narrator. But the idea of the book was just fascinating, and as Kunzru worked it out, it got more and more interesting. In the end, it stuck with me as a problem to be chewed at rather than a novel I loved, but I was really glad I read it.