White Tears – Hari Kunzru
Release Date: 06/04/2017
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (UK) (Review Copy Provided)
Pages: pp. 288 RRP: £14.99 (Hardcover)
Kindle edition available for preorder here (£8.99)
When two young record producers, Seth and Carter, covertly record a hooded black man in a public square as part of an elaborate hoax, we’re led on an incredible narrative that slowly shifts into a paranormal revenge fantasy intertwined with the history of racism and cultural appropriation in America – a narrative handled deftly by Hari Kunzru.
Kunzru pulls no punches in depicting Seth and Carter as almost utterly insufferable. The two meet at college, when trustafarian Carter approaches Seth to come back to his room to listen to music (with an audio setup including monitors taken from Abbey Road Studios). From the beginning of their partnership, Seth is swept along with Carter’s obsession with ‘authenticity’ – one which is interwoven with his listening exclusively to black music, which he claims ‘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’. The two graduate and seek to establish themselves as record producers in New York – primarily through sampling interwar pressings of old records, frequently used by their clientele of white rappers and rock bands. While recording ambient sound around the city, Seth catches a few lines of a blues song sung by an unknown passer-by; though when he returns home and plays the recording, he finds an entire performance. The two then seemingly discover the guitar sequence for the song in some other ambient recordings, distort the audio to resemble one of their samples, and release it online with a fake label, attributed to the fictional black musician, Charlie Shaw.
Following the satirical opening, the twist occurs when following the development of a buzz about the sample, online fans begin clamouring for the record, with one even claiming that he hasn’t heard Charlie Shaw in years. As the hype begins to escalate, it begins to become apparent that Charlie may be more real than Seth and Carter could have anticipated. When Carter is beaten and left for dead, following an attempted errand in the Bronx, Seth is left devastated. Carter’s family, their fortune drawn from private prisons and presented as an almost faceless monolith, block Seth out, refusing to even allow him to visit Carter in hospital. With too many questions on his mind about his predicament, Seth is eventually drawn into a strange road trip down South with Carter’s sister, Leonie, in an effort to try to find out what happened to Carter, and who, or possibly what, is Charlie Shaw.
Whilst the punishment for Seth and Carter’s crime culminates in an ultimately gory coup de grâce in the final act, Kunzru has examined some very interesting points on the issue of cultural appropriation and its place in a ‘post-racial’ America – particularly the element of legacy. Whilst Seth complains at one point that ‘It’s not fair to blame me for things that took place long before I was born … I am not to blame’, he is still largely ignorant of the fact that what he and Carter did effectively amounts to a form of contemporary minstrelsy. Whilst Kunzru does show through his descriptions of music how the protagonists began their downfall, he doesn’t excuse them for their complicit role in perpetuating the crime.
All the hallmarks of Kunzru’s best work are on display in White Tears, and it’s a work that never pulls its punches once. The sheer depth of his research into racial history (the influences of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison are subtle, but ever-present throughout the work) and white privilege adds a great deal more to discuss when examining the issue of cultural appropriation, and leaves you with a story that will stay with you long after finishing it.