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white tears

13 august 2018

If Nick Hornby and Colson Whitehead collaborated on a book, it would be something like Hari Kunzru's White Tears. Though Kunzru's own voice is certainly there: a nerdy side from Transmission, identity-shifting from The Impressionist. In White Tears, obsessive collecting in New York City leads to odysseys across multiracial America (as in Whitehead's John Henry Days ). As in Hornby's High Fidelity, that obsession is trained with encyclopedic attention on old records. Add magical realism and Bret-Easton-Ellis-like violence, and you have a uniquely ambitious novel.

I don't know that White Tears is ultimately a first-rate or enduring novel, though. Like its protagonist, it eventually spirals out of control and becomes something of a mess. But it is an intriguing novel early on, and always suspenseful.

Our narrator is Seth, aimless liberal-arts-college grad dealing with depression and social anxiety. He is happiest putzing around with sound files on his computer. Reminiscent of Harry Caul in The Conversation, Seth becomes good at recording people in public. His talents are spotted by a golden-boy preppie named Carter Wallace, who is only speciously better-adjusted than Seth. Carter funds a sound studio for Seth and himself, and they start sampling old shellac recordings on behalf of new vinyl acts. And that's where their troubles begin.

The opening chapters of White Tears provide a window into the world of contemporary audio and set a tone of suspense, but also point to the novel's major weakness. Seth's best friend Carter Wallace comes from unimaginable wealth and power. Carter's sister Leonie is a trust-funded video artist manqué; his brother Cornelius is a corporate asshole. Seth becomes fascinated with these glittery people. When we venture out of Seth's lovingly-described, geeky studio life, we're suddenly in the much more familiar novelistic territory of the most beautiful of the beautiful people, their irritating friends, their men-in-black-like lackeys, their unbearable manners and drug-fueled mores. We don't know what Seth sees in these people. Or rather we do: he's depressed, and for some reason, these people infinitely above him are the only people who ever talk to him. What we never learn is why we should care about these people.

Leonie in particular, who of course becomes the love interest in the story, is especially vapid and unsympathetic. In fact, Carter, with his mercurial ways and his genuine if over-the-top fascination with old blues recordings, is far more interesting a character – and a far more plausible erotic interest for Seth, as some tense early scenes demonstrate.

But the tension between Carter and Seth gets cut off early, along with Carter himself. The golden boy is mugged and left for braindead in the Bronx. The quest to learn why becomes the driving force for the remainder of the plot. Seth's theory is that the attack has something to do with the music of Charlie Shaw, a Delta bluesman from the 1930s who may somehow still be playing on the streets of 2010 New York. Or may not, because for all Seth knows, he and Carter invented Charlie Shaw.

I've barely scratched the plot of White Tears here, probably not even telling you as much as the back cover of the book does. The plot hook is palpable. I recommend the novel as an exciting reading experience, but you need to be braced for upsetting helpings of violence and some disorienting dissolutions of identity.

Kunzru, Hari. White Tears. 2017. New York: Vintage [Penguin Random House], 2018. PR 6111 .U68W48