Hari Kunzru’s White Tears starts out as a conventional realist novel. Uber rich Carter and scholarship kid Seth meet up in college and bond over a love of music and sound. Together they make music, buy records and come of age. Seth, our narrator, loves Carter both for the person he is and for the world he invites him in to: one where making and accessing music is possible because budget doesn’t (seem) to matter. At this point the reader thinks the book is about male friendship, income inequality and coming of age as Gen Z. A lot of spoilers follow.
Then about 1/3 of the way in the book takes a… turn. Sure there were hints of weirdness: Seth forgetting long swaths of time, an echoing haunting track of music he recorded while wandering, but there was nothing to fully prepare the reader for the descent (both in content and in form) from realism to… something akin to horror. Precipitating the turn is the ‘creation’ by Seth and Carter of a track of music that borrow from the song he recorded while walking, but layers on rare pieces from the 1920s. After publishing their song online, they’re tracked down by… I guess a ghost is the best way of describing it. A ghost of a blues singer long forgotten to history. The questions of the book then turn to authenticity in music, racial authenticity (in music), ownership and authorship. And the plot becomes a messy mix of transposed voices and interplay of sound. It is something of a trip to read, and hardly recognizable from the first part of the book.
I’ll admit that had the book begun as it ends I’m unlikely to have read it. The formal play is disconcerting, but having established care and concern for our protagonist, the journey becomes worthwhile and… oddly fun. As if Kunzru is showing us what is possible in text just as our characters are exploring the limits of sound. So if you want something bordering experimental – at least in the latter half – and provocative in its exploration of race and class… enjoy.