Hari Kunzru is a British-born writer and has only lived in the US since 2008, yet he weaves a tale about the roots of appropriation in our culture in this stunning literary thriller. Two college friends, both white, bond over a shared obsession with old blues music. Carter is from a rich, well-connected family with the money to set up a recording studio full of “authentic” analog equipment, and Seth is an introspective nerd with a habit of wandering the city recording ambient noise. By chance Seth picks up audio of a man singing a haunting tune on the street, which the duo mixes to sound like a genuine blues tune digitized from an old 78 record. Carter shares it online, labeled as if it were a song by an artist named Charlie Shaw. They believe they’ve concocted a ﬁctional song and person, but someone contacts them convinced that it’s a real record that he’s heard before, leading them on a bizarre journey into bygone eras.
In an interview with Michael Barron (which is an excellent dialogue but talks about the novel in detail people who haven’t yet read the book may want to save for later), Kunzru spoke of how he developed the idea for his novel after moving to the US:
I thought to myself that this was a country that was haunted by race, so when I decided to write about race and the blues, I thought it should take the form of a ghost story. Blues already has a ghostly quality to it — you can literally hear its distance from the present. There’s something haunting, too, about putting on a record and letting the voice and performance of someone long dead ﬁll your room.
For some readers, the book will take a pretty weird turn, as the concept of time bends and the past melds into the present in a way where you feel unsure from sentence to sentence which character and place the story is inhabiting. But it’s an inventive approach, and the novel goes to some amazing places via this distortion of perspective. It’s impressive how the story resists getting didactic and conveys historical backgrounds without the usual mechanisms of one person spontaneously lecturing others. With vivid and cinematic writing, I could easily imagine White Tears being adapted into an amazing movie.