White Tears: the blues will get everybody

Book cover: White Tears - Hari Kunzru (text treatment)Seth has always lived for the future, but his musical partner Carter has his heart set on the past. When Carter pushes Seth to create a retro track that sounds straight out of the 20s, they unleash a memory of musicians past. The blues don’t forget, and the devil still lingers at the crossroads…

White Tears – like The Rift – is one of those books that will be read in different ways by different people. It could be the story of a young man in trouble, who spirals into obsessive paranoia after his rich but unstable partner is tragically assaulted. It could be the haunting story of a century-long vendetta, of the ghosts of musicians past reaching out to wreak their vengeance on a family that has repeatedly wronged them for profit. It could be a cautionary tale of magical realism, where music can possess you to avenge sins past and present. It could be all of these things at once.

Regardless, it’s clear: messing with the blues is bad for you.

I read White Tears as a literary ghost story. The prose is exquisite, and it pulls no punches in using its arguably slight plot to explore questions of racism and privilege. Seth and Carter are both young white men; Carter Wallace is the youngest son of a billionaire, whose wealth insulates and enables him. Seth is the awkward university friend who unexpectedly shares his passion for music. Together, they become a sought-after part of the New York music scene; Carter investing in rare vinyl and a studio, Seth putting the material and kit to good use.

It all goes wrong when Carter’s latest obsession becomes an exercise in aggressive cultural appropriation. When he pushes Seth to create a track so authentic you can hear the scratch and hiss of the electric kit it wasn’t recorded on in the 20s, Carter declares that he now ‘owns’ the musical tradition because he can successfully fake it. Even if hadn’t been advertised as a story of Things Will Go Wrong For These Boys, by this point I was actively wishing Carter ill (by the time they were both threatening strangers on the internet for LOLs, I had extended my ill-will to Seth).

Once they release their track into the world, things spiral quickly: a doom-saying old codger (JumpJim) claims that his life was ruined by this very same track (yes, even though it has only just been recorded); Carter is assaulted and left for dead; and Seth discovers how quickly you can lose everything. He has operated on trust, working with his friend. As Carter’s older brother takes control of Carter’s affairs and finances (including, naturally, the rights to all his music), he makes it clear Seth’s suddenly penniless state is his own fault for having friends, not lawyers. Without paperwork, Seth can be painted as nothing more than a parasitic hanger-on. Whether it’s true that Carter told his family that he’s the creative mind and Seth is merely an engineer doesn’t really matter – as with so much of White Tears it’s less about truth than about whose story survives.

And as Seth’s grip on reality slips – and/or his obsession with the original Graveyard Blues intensifies – the question of whose story this is (or should be) becomes ever more acute. Moving on from the unforgiving streets of New York, it acquires a Southern Gothic atmosphere as Seth and Leonie (Carter’s sister) set out on a road trip to Mississippi to try and track down the truth behind JumpJim’s story of the Graveyard Blues.

At its heart, White Tears is a relentless exploration of racism and privilege. It’s craft is in integrating these themes into the horror of the story without slipping into polemic. It’s acutely aware of societal structural inequalities, unlike resentful Leonie or beleaguered Seth, desperate to avoid being held accountable for the sins of others (“whatever happened to him, I’m not to blame”). It implicitly poses a difficult question – if we benefit from the oppression of others (historic and present), are we equally culpable if we make no efforts to address it? – and its blood-soaked, Gothic response is satisfying, if far from comforting.

That’s not to say it’s without its issues. After Chalk this is one of the hardest reads I’ve pushed through in a while. Aesthetically, it’s gorgeous, Kunzru’s writing beautiful but easy to read. The story is compelling, from its social horror to the way it twists time and space to overlay the past on the present. But emotionally I fought it the whole way, rejecting just how mean-spirited almost all its characters were: predatory, self-interested, and possessive. It is also an overwhelmingly male story: women here are objects of obsession, violence or grief, fitting the narrow stereotypes that perhaps echoes the women sung about in the blues (I don’t know the blues well enough to say).

But I’m glad I made the effort. It’s an excellent novel that I heartily recommend.



Footnote: the lyrics to the Graveyard Blues B-side may be one of the creepiest thing I’ve ever read. And it goes on, and on, and on, and on…