on White Tears, a novel by Hari Kunzru (Knopf)

The conclusion of Hari Kunzru’s White Tears leaves the reader shaken by the long habits of racism in America and the misappropriation of culture. But the beginning is all about sound. “Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration,” says Seth, the narrator. “I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eight years in the past.”

KunzruCover.jpg“White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough,” wrote Ta-Nehesi Coates in The Atlantic. “That is not true because they are white, but because they are human.” Kunzru’s mission in White Tears is to depict what it sounds like when you are pained enough.

In this novel, everything including fate hinges on one’s ability to hear what remains within a captured sound. The unforgettable forgotten. This trial is enforced not only on Kunzru’s main characters, but also on the reader. Modulating sound, even more than propelling the action, is Kunzru’s most demanding task – and his secret sauce. Seth is a person susceptible to the appeals of sound. His phrase “I felt I was slipping” describes my experience with this story.

Having met in college, Carter and Seth establish a recording studio in New York with a reputation for sonic creativity. The studio, their apartment and other expenses are paid by Carter Wallace’s trust fund made possible by the family’s corporate incarceration business. Seth has no remarkable qualities aside from his technological dexterity, but Carter’s mania for collecting old recordings (“more intense and authentic than anything made by white people”) and reusing their effects makes Seth indispensable. Carter becomes obsessed with Seth’s surreptitious recording of a black man named Charlie Shaw singing blues in a Manhattan park; they muddy it up to sound vintage and post it online to confound avid collectors, including a chat-roomer named JumpJim, an aged ex-collector still spooked by the untimely death of a fellow record-maniac and heroin addict. The action begins.

Kunzru.jpegI refrain from plot-dumps when commenting on prose fiction, but I will tell you this: the conventional opening chapters morph into scenes and events that spiral into horror, disorientation, mystery, and fantasy. The present slides into the past, the past into timelessness. Early cues warn that messing with the bluesman’s riff can only put trespassers in pain: “Something had attached itself to Carter and me, some tendril of the past, and if we did not detach it, we would be drawn back into death and silence.” Death soon occurs -- who is committing these murders?

What Seth does best is abjection: the darker things get, the more he portrays himself as a victim: “When you are powerless, something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened … When you are powerless, everything you do seems to be in vain.” From the Bronx to Jackson, Mississippi, he is stalked. But he is also driven to search for -- what? The scene of a crime, it seems. Early in the novel, one empathizes with Seth who carries the torch for Carter’s jaded art-scene sister Leonie and describes a party of Wallace family friends and hangers-on in critical terms. So, when life turns frantic and frightening for Seth, we are already settled in behind his eyes. We are made more or less powerless by Kunzru’s agitated prose – or at least this is his goal. His effects are achieved through dialing up the pitch and speed of his sentences; there is little complexity to Seth's thought. He's simply over his head, or chooses to portray himself that way.

Snaking within White Tears is a vast sententiousness. Like most prose and poetry underscored by overt social urgencies, this novel will most likely be experienced by those who agree in advance with its demands. But whether categorized as a paranormal horror story, a warped pathological testimony, or a morality tale, White Tears is a significant achievement for its process -- a sort of wall of sound that rises in pitch and force until Seth-as-white-man is blown to pieces. The novel earns its force. Seth's sonic footprint, straightforward in chapter one, has become something other by the final page. Then again, he has always been adept at producing innovative sounds.

KunzruSound.jpegSeth’s “powerlessness” brings up all of the white fear that has put Donald Trump in the White House. The phantom named Charlie Shaw who pursues Seth may suggest to some readers that the collective memories of oppressed peoples want to wreak violence on the supposedly innocent progeny of the oppressors. But I don’t take it that way. There is a macabre hopefulness in White Tears. To be pained enough entails ingesting the other’s pain, processing it. Kunzru enacts this process stunningly through sound.

[Published March 14, 2017. 288 pages, $26.95 hardcover]