Hari Kunzru's White Tears: Even white boys gets the blues

A story of two obsessive record collectors becomes an interrogation of authenticity and the transformative power of music. 

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On a recent trip to New York, I turned on the TV during The Tonight Show, on which Morgan Freeman, promoting a new heist film starring Michael Caine, was Jimmy Fallon’s guest. Fallon got going by asking Freeman about the blues club he owns in Clarksdale, Mississippi, an area that the actor described as the “ground zero” of the blues (also the name of his club). “And,” Fallon asked, “are you a blues fan?” Freeman seemed briefly to consider the idea that he might have bought a club specialising in music he didn’t like, and assented. There was a pause. “Can you recommend any blues songs?” said Fallon. “What’s some good blues to get into? ’Cause I like the blues.”

Anything, responded Freeman, which is not entirely true but, seriously, why would he bother to elaborate? Taking the hint, Fallon launched into some impressions of Caine, and there was no more talk of the Mississippi Delta and its musicians.

If this version of “the blues” – an integral but yet amorphous, unknown, interchangeable part of American life – sits at one end of the cultural spectrum, then the characters in Hari Kunzru’s fifth novel have situated themselves firmly at the other. They are the connoisseurs, the precision collectors who scurry down the fossil record, past the electric bluesmen of the Fifties and Sixties and the emergence of rhythm ’n’ blues across urban America until they hit ground zero: the 78rpm recordings of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. These are the so-called “race records” that were marketed to a Southern black audience and, until the collectors came, largely remained in their hands. Among the most notable artists were Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson, whose life, work and premature death both invoked and perpetuated the myth of the musician who sells his soul to the devil in return for the songs he needs. Among the most notable collectors have been the field recorder Alan Lomax, the cartoonist Robert Crumb and, most recently, Jack White, whose Third Man label has issued two vast volumes of Paramount recordings from 1917 to 1932.

Kunzru doesn’t begin with the blues, however, but with a whistle-stop ride through a variety of other musical styles, thereby underlining the ways in which genres are continually swirling in and out of fashion, being appropriated, discarded and reappropriated in ways that can either dilute or strengthen them or – over the course of time – both. Instead, he begins with a pair of magpies, the fictional trope of vastly privileged young man and dazzled, useful acolyte that we’ve seen in novels from The Go-Between and Brideshead Revisited to The Line of Beauty and The Goldfinch. Carter, the younger son of a wealthy family given to secrecy, is the leader and Seth, awkward, naive, yet enormously driven, his protégé. Together, they rip through musical obsessions: dub, ska and soca, free jazz, Lee Perry, drawn inexorably to black music despite their “disabling caucasity”, painfully aware that they are unable to own it.

But when they hit on the blues, their whiteness somehow ceases to be a problem, possibly because of their sense of themselves as pioneers or adventurers in an esoteric world. Kunzru is troublingly excellent (in the sense that you worry about his own vinyl habit) on the excesses of collectors: the trade-offs more complicated than any drug deal, the constant hunt, the mistrust of other addicts that occasionally gives way to grudging respect. But Carter and Seth are not merely collectors; as would-be producers, they also want to inhabit the music.

In an ill-conceived jape, they invent an artist and a record, based on a song Seth has overheard a chess player in Washington Park singing. They dirty it up to sound old and release it on the internet. Immediately, we are through the looking-glass: somehow, the figment of their imagination, Charlie Shaw, comes to life, attended by a host of haunted blues enthusiasts past and present, simultaneously desperate to unearth the mystery of his lost song and terrified about what they might unleash. In short order, disaster ensues and Seth is left to try to expiate the damage done, by tracing the story of Charlie Shaw to its source.

In a less subtle narrative, this might have flattened into a story of historico-cultural guilt and reparation; indeed, the novel plays with those elements in an exploration of the US incarceration system that provided so much profit for white men in the Deep South. However, it is also about the power of music and, by extension, the power of art to make its practitioners and devotees mad. At times we are aware that both Carter and Seth have had their minds blown, more literally than figuratively, by what they have heard. The obsessiveness of the collector is seen not simply as a function of the drive to acquire and complete, but as a doomed way to contain what is uncontainable: the transformative power of music and its ceaseless mutations.

Behind this lies the neurotic interrogation of authenticity, rational when it relates, for instance, to uncovering how communities and their artworks have been marginalised, but far less so when it derives from the belief in a non-stop march backwards in search of purity. As Kunzru gradually brings the non-existent Charlie Shaw to life, we begin to appreciate that, authentic or not, forgotten or celebrated, the course of his life was the same – the odds stacked against him, the escape tunnels blocked. The same cannot be said entirely for the willing, if hapless volunteers who made him their fetish.

This article appears in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue