White Tears is a 2017 literary horror novel by Hari Kunzru. Seth and Carter are two young white menwho share a passion for music; particularly black music. Thanks to Carter’s trust fund and wealthy family, and Seth’s technical skills and talent, the two run a successful recording studio in Brooklyn. Their lives take a turn, however, when Seth records an unknown singer in the park. Carter mixes the lyrics in their studio, making it sound like an authentic recording of a blues musician from the 1920s, and releases it online as a song by a lost artist of his invention named Charlie Shaw. It seems harmless enough to them, until somebody online reaches out saying that their fictional song and musician are somehow very real. What begins as the two humouring a seemingly confused old man sends their lives spiraling down into the darkness of the nation’s heart.
The timing on reading this novel was oddly coincidental, as many of the issues and themes it touches upon are the reasons many people in America and around the world are protesting in the streets right now. It came across as eerily prescient as well, with the last words of George Floyd appearing in this novel in a similar context, though this of course speaks to what is a continual problem and not just an unsettling coincidence.
When this novel first caught my attention, it was for the vague impression that it was a ghost story related to old blues music, and beyond that I really didn’t know what to expect going in, which turned out to be perfect. The early phases of the story are rather grounded, telling the story from Seth’s perspective and getting into the history of his friendship with Carter, his business partner and all-around benefactor. Their shared passion for music and audio technology is genuine, but at its heart their relationship is crushingly dreary and co-dependent. While their studio is seemingly successful, Carter has always had their needs met thanks to his wealthy family, a position that Seth did not manoeuvre himself into, but more simply fell into. As a result, Seth doesn’t really have any independence to speak of, nor has he pushed for any. Who he is and what he does is tied directly to Carter.
His personality is subdued, leading others to falsely believe he is emotionless, when he is actually just awkward and a little repressed. In the early phases of the story I found his situation somewhat sympathetic, but more pitiable. It was hard not to relate with him a little, however, such as in social situations where he comes off more as a body filling up space than an active participant, especially at the family gatherings of Carter’s that he happens to attend, which is an emotional place I feel most of us have probably been before. It’s interesting to watch a character like this move through the story and try to change his situation, as more and more is stripped away from him as the story progresses.
Music is an important element to the story, most especially the blues, its presence felt beyond Seth to the voracious record collectors that populate the story and as a medium through which the enigmatic Charlie Shaw haunts the world. I was surprised to find how much more of a symbolic role it played, however, only “The Graveyard Blues” playing a more active role as a catalyst in the beginning. The blues and the black musicians that created it serves more as a motif that helps set the mood of the story, representing both something aspirational for members of an oppressed community as well as its collective suffering expressed in art. This music is coveted by a number of white record collectors in the story, Carter particularly, and their immunity to the suffering that created it is not to be overlooked.
As a ghost story this book felt the most powerful; I’m not sure I’ve ever read one so uniquely executed upon before. In part, it is a mystery. How Seth came to record this anomalous music, with only memories of recording a small part of it, despite there being a full song, baffles the character. Charlie Shaw’s haunting of Seth and Carter takes indistinct form early on as well, misfortune befalling them that, at least in part, is the fault of their own choices. Seth’s perspective becomes seemingly more and more unreliable, however, as locations disappear and reappear, and it soon becomes apparent that he and others associated with him are having their places in reality compromised as the past itself seems to haunt them. They must discover just what it is Shaw wants from them, undertaking a disorienting journey into the American South to discover the origins of the song and try to make things right with the dead musician.
It is stark just how different these later phases of the story are from the more grounded beginning, and that is where I think the “haunting” aspect is most prominent. While there is a distortion of reality clearly at play for the characters, what is most disorienting is the style in which it’s written. It can be intense, dizzying, and hard to keep events straight in a way that feels cohesive with the tone and themes of the story. While typical ghostly manifestations are not in play for the majority of the book, it palpably captures the sense of someone being subjected to oppressive forces beyond their control, which also distinctly parallels the treatment Shaw himself suffered during the more outwardly vicious racism of the 1920s. You can feel Seth’s sense of self, and any power he presumed to have as a human being, slowly worn away.
There’s only really one thing that stuck out to me as unusual, which bothered me from when I’d noticed it until the book’s conclusion. This is the fact that there wasn’t at any point an individual black character present in the story that didn’t have some sort of supernatural or otherworldly atmosphere ascribed to them. We come to learn a lot about and sympathize with the tragic history of Charlie Shaw, as well as many others, but there isn’t a single black character who just feels like a person present in the narrative. There are plenty of unnamed bystanders to the story that named characters interact with, sure, but any black person with bearing on the plot has something otherworldly to them, and this just didn’t sit well with me.
White Tears is an excellent novel; a compelling and mysterious ghost story, an intriguing exploration of music collecting, and a raw journey into the racial violence of America’s past and present. With everything going on right now, it made the reading feel all the more important to experience. It could be rather intense and draining too, especially in the more visceral moments, such as reading through a characters prolonged experience of brutality during an arrest and detainment, so do not anticipate a comfortable read. Despite the intensity, it is laudable for not being too ham-fisted with a singular and simplistic message, nor did it ever feel to me as if the narrative was talking down or just lecturing. Though a little flawed, it is a harrowing reading experience worth checking out.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5