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From one of the most talented fiction writers at work today: two ambitious young musicians are drawn into the dark underworld of blues record collecting, haunted by the ghosts of a repressive past.
Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is glamorous and the heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.
White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.
I have had a copy of White Tears since it came out, but I was triggered to finally read it when I stumbled upon a podcast that Hari Kunzru made in 2020 called, Into the Zone. The first episode talks about the world of collecting 78 rpm records, records recorded between 1898 and the late 50s. Many of these were recorded regionally, and they were made in a way that the records physically did not last long. This combination makes some of the recording have been lost forever, and some of them are so rare that there is only one or two copies in existence. The plot of White Tears starts with Seth and his friend Carter. Seth spends most of his time walking around the city with a microphone, recording whatever he can hear. Carter spends his time searching for 78 records. They open a recording studio, and Carter makes a record using some of Seth’s field recordings, and when it becomes a hit amongst 78 collectors, one person is aggressive, asking where they got that record, because he has been looking for it for years.
The first half of his novel is a mystery, some of it due to the Mandela effect and some of it due to the fact that some of these 78s are so rare. While Seth works at the studio, Carter becomes more and more erratic, and there is a definite split between the first and the second half of this novel. The second half falls into complete chaos, where Seth is on a mission to figure out what is happening because of this mythical record, whether it really is real, even though he was part of making it himself. The further he goes, the more confusing and convoluted the story becomes, to the point where the reader starts to feel the same confusion that Seth is feeling. The second half is surreal. Some parts and some sentences do not make sense to the scene or even the sentence before it. And as the story tailspins further and further into this confusion, the more we start to feel like we are Seth as well, that the things happening to him are happening to us too.
There are some things about Seth that are alluded to but not explained. When he is recording the city with his microphone in the beginning, there are times when he feels like he got a snippet of something, but when he plays it back, he has recorded much more than he thought. He has other lapses in memory, and there are times when he does not understand some of his problems even when they are obvious. It is not exactly frustrating as it is interesting, like why is Seth like this, and how does not understand the situation he is in until it is almost too late.
White Tears has it’s moments where it is purposefully confusing and chaotic. We are supposed to be just as confused as Seth. We are supposed to be empathetic to the things he is going through because we are going through the same sort of chaos. Hari Kunzru’s attempt to submerge us into his psyche is somewhat effective, but not fully because unlike Seth, we can stop at any moment. We can stop reading, shut the book, and do something else. Seth seems caught in his story, but we are not, and there are points where it is uncomfortable and I did stop reading for a while, so that I could get away from the problems he was facing. I enjoyed the two halves of this novel for different reasons. I like the first half for how interesting and constructed everything is, and I like the second half because it is the complete opposite of that. This type of book may be off putting to some readers, but I love it. I should have read it sooner.