Series: White Tears
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 and Delta Mississippi Blues.
Two twenty-something New Yorkers: Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous 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.
As the novel begins, three characters are in the forefront:
>> As the book begins, Carter Wallace is a trust-fund college student from an extremely wealthy family who is obsessed with music from the distant past. He wears his blond hair in dreadlocks, sports an array of tattoos, and is desperate to be taken seriously by his family and by the black hipster community. Carter spends his money on drugs and old 78 rpm records, making him a failure in the eyes of most of the members of his family. After college, Carter and his partner, Seth, open a recording studio that specializes in recreating the music and special effects ambiance of blues music—the scratchy sounds of 78 rpm records, the poor quality of early blues recordings, and the insertion of various weird sounds recorded in 21st century Manhattan.
>> Seth is an impoverished college student when Carter becomes fascinated by Seth's ability to manipulate sound and decides that the two should become friends. Seth is a social misfit with an uncanny talent for gathering and mixing sounds. Back in his teen-age years, he constructed his own acoustical equipment, and he still wanders around Manhattan secretly recording every sound he hears. All the way through the book, I kept picturing Seth as looking and behaving like Rami Malek's character (Elliot Alderson) in the TV show Mr. Robot. Seth, like Elliot, is a tech whiz who suffers from social anxiety and clinical depression. While Elliot slides in and out of reality because of his heavy drug use, Seth slips back and forth from past to present because he loses himself in his collection of street sounds and music. After he teams up with Carter, Seth discovers that he has inadvertently been dragged into assisting a ghost on his bloody quest for vengeance. Seth and Carter are completely different in their world views and in their economic and social circumstances, but they share a reverence for the blues and are determined to make a name for themselves in the music world.
>> Leonie Wallace is Carter's sister, a beautiful but emotionally troubled young woman who lives the life of a punk artist, but who never really fits into that bohemian—and frequently pretentious—lifestyle. Seth falls for Leonie the first time he sees her, but for a long time, she is completely oblivious to his very existence.One day, Seth shares with Carter a street recording of a black man singing a blues song that neither has heard before. After Seth "dirties" it up with his special scratchy sounds, Carter creates a suitable label and posts it on the Internet, claiming that it is a one-of-a-kind recording by the famous blues singer Charlie Shaw (a name Carter makes up). Almost immediately, an anonymous man who calls himself JumpJim begins to badger them. He wants to buy the record, and he demands to know the what's on the flip side. Eventually, Seth meets up with JumpJim in a dive bar, and it is at this point that the story begins to take a dark, dark turn.
As the plot progresses, it segues from a psychological profile of three very different young people into an uneasy road trip and a murder mystery thriller featuring by a long-dead ghost seeking revenge. As you read the early chapters, you'll never be able to predict how all of the characters are connected, so the explosively violent climax comes as a huge shock: sad, sinister, and satisfying—all at the same time. (Here's a hint: Pay attention to the lyrics of Charlie Shaw's song.)
All the way through, Kunzru's characters (except for Leonie) lose themselves in music as they slip and slide back and forth from present to past and back again. In a key moment, Seth muses about the radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi and his belief that “if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to the sound of ancient times." As Seth wanders the Manhattan streets and alleys, he is never sure exactly where he is in the stream of time, but he never worries about it because his life is all about the sounds.
White Tears did not immediately reel me in, but when it did—about half-way through—I couldn't put it down. Kunzru's character development is masterful, and his plotting is expertly conceived. The only quibble I have relates to Leonie's place in the character line-up. Her presence didn't add much to the story, and she was frequently a distraction. As a whole, I'd give the novel four stars and a high recommendation.
Click HERE to read an excellent review of this novel by Laura Miller on Slate. Click HERE to read Michael Schaub's NPR review. Click HERE to read Steve Erickson's review in the New York Times.
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