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Winter 2018

Whining Boy Blues

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Brian Seibert

White Tears
by Hari Kunzru.
Knopf, 2017,
$26.95 cloth.

To hear the voice of blues musicians like Charley Patton, you have to listen through static, the crackle and hiss of 78 rpm recordings from the late 1920s or early 1930s. For some ears, that aural layer of dirt and dust is a barrier, the repellent sound of obsolescence, but for others, it’s part of the appeal, a patina of rarity, the authenticating mark of remoteness in time. A drowned or buried voice can sound more compelling. The impurities increase the mystery that some want to hear.

Seth, the principal narrator of Hari Kunzru’s brilliant, brittle, and all-too-timely novel White Tears, isn’t exactly either kind of listener. But he is an obsessive one with hypersensitive hearing, which serves him well as an up-and-coming sound engineer and music-studio technician. Where others hear noise, he hears signals.

He tells us that at first he found old blues recordings unlistenable. His ear wanted to clean them up. But later he began hearing messages in them. Not just the pain in some of the lyrics, but something underneath that, a groundwater of suffering. And also something sinister and implacable, demanding restitution, threatening retribution.

Seth hears a lot that other people might not. In hotel rooms and bus stations, he hears voices, conversations from the past. That sounds crazy, and by the middle of the novel, if not from the start, Seth may have gone insane. But what he hears in the blues is revealing. White Tears is a ghost story about white guilt, and an old blues recording that may or may not exist is its tell-tale heart.

Seth, we learn, got into music through a friend he met in college: Carter Wallace, a hipster with a trust fund, the blond-dreadlocked, tattooed black sheep of a family that controls a Halliburton-like construction corporation. Carter listens exclusively to black music, he instructs Seth, because it is “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people,” and his tastes slide backward in time until he gets mired in old blues 78s, which he starts collecting feverishly. With his money, he and Seth set up a recording studio in Williamsburg, specializing in vintage, analog sounds and samples from the rare black music Carter has purchased.

Seth also has a habit of roaming the city, eavesdropping and covertly recording. One day, he captures the sound of a black man singing a blues song. Cleaned up and deciphered, the song seems to tell a cryptic tale of violence and vengeful feelings. It unnerves Seth, but Carter is hooked. He can’t get it out of his head. He makes Seth dirty the track so that it sounds like a worn 78, and after he posts this faux-relic online under the made-up artist name Charlie Shaw, collectors greet it as an authentic discovery. One guy, with the handle JumpJim, claims to have heard Shaw in 1959.

Around this point, bad things start happening. Carter is attacked and ends up in a coma. Without his rich friend, Seth finds himself cut off and soon homeless. He runs into JumpJim, who convinces him that Charlie Shaw is real, or as real as a ghost, a ghost that wants something. In search of answers, or of Shaw, Seth travels south toward Mississippi, bringing along Carter’s sister, Leonie. Bad things happen to her, too.

Or they seem to—the novel grows more and more disorienting. You could say that the characters experience extreme déjà vu, except that they say, more mystically, “all of this has already happened.” Anachronistic details intrude, and the verb tenses start slipping, present tangled up with past. Seth’s account of his journey south with Leonie alternates—and partially blends—with JumpJim’s story of a southern sojourn that he and an older collector took in the 1950s, hunting for records. As threads of the story sink a few decades deeper into the Jim Crow South, and Seth’s sense of self unravels, distinguishing between past and present, between history and hallucination, becomes increasingly difficult.

This is an exceptionally vivid, intensely imagined book, a real tour de force. Sometimes, Kunzru works the magic that Seth says can happen in the studio, thrilling and chilling with sound, opening up “impossible spaces in the mind.” But this narrative legerdemain, overused, also comes off like the studio tricks that Seth explains as “just clever technique.” (Did that happen? Did it not happen? Do we care anymore?)
Beyond being trippy, the blurring of present and past clearly has thematic aspirations: the past isn’t even past, or as Seth phrases it, “we have always been here but it has taught us nothing.” The execution, though, is frequently less Faulknerian than Twilight Zone–ish. The more distant from the present the book gets, the more lurid and garish it becomes, and the more familiar its scenarios and sequences of dialogue can seem, as if sampled from TV and movies. This novel is dense with clues, messages that may or may not signify, flickering in the background or whispering at the edge of perception, a Pynchonian system of signs illuminated not by paranoia, but by guilt; and all this information, combined with the disorientation, can make White Tears feel like an album that’s been overproduced, too many of its echoes and effects canceling each other out.

Even so, the most difficult aspect of the novel for me wasn’t any of this. It was Seth as a narrator. His status as an outsider in relation to the Wallace family’s money makes him an acute observer of that milieu, his perceptions acidified by anxiety and resentment. But if this sidekick is a reader surrogate, he’s no Nick Carraway. He’s a loner, a loser, a creep, a pathetic figure, a nobody—those are the words he uses to describe himself, and this whiny self-awareness only makes him more insufferable. He may be haunted and hounded, the novel’s scapegoat, but despite the flashes of eloquence that Kunzru gives him, the real punishment is experienced by the reader, tethered to Seth as he passively moons over Leonie and keeps going down without a fight. Even if one of the first things we learn about him is that his mother died when he was a teenager (that’s when he started hearing the past), it’s hard to muster much empathy.

And that’s true of all the white characters, which is to say, all the major characters in the novel. Carter’s older brother and parents are wickedly drawn caricatures of menacing affluence. JumpJim and the mid-century blues collectors (based on such historical figures as James McKune and the “Blues Mafia” that salvaged and hoarded blues recordings) are sad and avaricious, the analogy between their collecting and drug addiction made literal by turning them into junkies. Carter is also an addict, with some clinical psychological condition that, it’s implied, originates from guilt about his wealth and whiteness. His sister, Leonie, self-pitying, shallow, and none too stable herself, has artistic aspirations that aren’t taken seriously because of her family background.

Hence the title. White Tears, for those not in the know, is a dismissive new label for the complaints of white people who cry about reverse racism or racial injustice against whites. Unlike crocodile tears, white tears are sincere; the term is an accusation of ignorance or malign naivety, of obliviousness to what is now commonly called white privilege.

Is Kunzru’s novel a satire of white privilege? The white characters continue insisting that they’re not racist as the plot ties them to a system of racial injustice—indeed, to the criminal justice system and a hidden family history conflating prisons and plantation labor. As Seth and JumpJim fall under the curse of Charlie Shaw—that incarnation of white guilt collecting payment for the debt that can never be settled—both of these white sidekicks protest that they haven’t done anything wrong, that they aren’t to blame for what happened long ago. Yet despite what Seth says (or because of his protesting too much), the reader is supposed to notice how Seth is tied to the blood money. The benefits he enjoyed tangentially, unaware of the source, are the definition of white privilege. His weakness and helplessness, even his social invisibility among the wealthy, are the decoys of false innocence. His emptiness is the emptiness of whiteness, and what happens to him, or what he imagines happening to him, is a nightmare but also a fantasy expiation of guilt, the ultimate one. The extremity of this fantasy is the kind of exaggeration one finds in satire. But it’s a satire that wants to scare you, threaten you.

For all its interest in the past, this book is exceedingly of-the-moment. That prison/plantation idea is right out of recent books like The New Jim Crow and the documentary film 13th. The story of Seth and Carter is marked all over as an exhibit of that hot-button issue, cultural appropriation. (“We did really feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness,” Seth says early on, “but by the time we got to New York, we’d learned not to talk about it.”) The history of the blues collectors is similarly colored, retrospectively: whether what they were up to was preservation or theft, how much their love of old black music was an escape from the Civil Rights struggles of actual black people, whether they should have been registering blacks to vote instead of grubbing for valuable objects.

There’s something rigged here. It’s most noticeable when the characters unsubtly ventriloquize bien-pensant opinions and errors, but it operates throughout the novel. The plot isn’t predictable, but the point of view is. And so even as Kunzru’s imagination ventures most boldly, it feels constricted. He’s written that he started working on the novel as a pretext to indulge his own obsession, his own love for blues music. But the blues, as he presents it in White Tears, isn’t good-time music for dancing, rich with bawdy humor. It isn’t blues to get rid of the blues. It’s unbearable pain, “the sound of the middle passage,” a scream, “the sound of a body undergoing discipline.” The Delta bluesmen are lost geniuses, “ghosts at the edge of American consciousness.” Their message is threat and accusation, and nothing more.

There’s a lot of fantasy in this, of course. This mythology of the blues stems from the cult of authenticity created by the Blues Mafia and taken up by the Rolling Stones: the ramblers, the rounders, the deals with the devil, the crossroads, the hoodoo, the graveyards, the prisons. White Tears, so researched and so knowing, alludes to this narrowing mythology (which, like all mythology, holds some truth), but it doesn’t let you hear what it occludes. The secrets it reveals are limited to the self-reproaches of our guilt-ridden present.

The epigraph Kunzru has chosen for his novel is a blues verse first recorded by the otherwise obscure Hambone Willie Newburn in 1929: “I rolled and I tumbled / Cried the whole night long / Woke up this morning / I didn’t know right from wrong.” This ominous message floated in variants through Charley Patton and Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters to Cream and Canned Heat and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. It’s meant many things to many people. There’s always more to hear in those old records, through and in the crackle and hiss.

Brian Seibert is the author of What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing.

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