The catas­tro­phe of a blast from the past

What be­gins with a crackly record­ing re­sults in a crack­ing good thriller, says Mal­colm Forbes

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At first glance, Hari Kun­zru’s nov­els ap­pear to be straight­for­ward reads which re­volve around a sin­gle is­sue or unique con­ceit. There is the pale In­dian pro­tag­o­nist of The Im­pres­sion­ist (2003), an in­sid­i­ous com­puter virus in Trans­mis­sion (2005), and a child’s baf­fling desert dis­ap­pear­ance in Gods Without Men (2011). In the open­ing chunk of his lat­est novel, White Tears, a fake blues record emerges as the in­trigu­ing cen­tre of at­ten­tion.

How­ever, in each of Kun­zru’s books, these tropes or ideas are not so much fo­cal points as start­ing points. They trig­ger tan­gen­tial themes, usher in di­verse char­ac­ters, and lead to all man­ner of bizarre and in­ven­tive trans­for­ma­tions and con­nec­tions. As with Kun­zru’s finer nov­els, White Tears fuses sharp prose, bold stylis­tics and a dizzy­ing range of cross-cul­tural voices to ex­plore race, iden­tity and the long shad­ows of the past.

Kun­zru in­tro­duces two young, white 20-some­thing New York­ers. Carter, the scion of a wealthy fam­ily, is cool, glam­orous, pop­u­lar, con­fi­dent. In con­trast, Seth, the book’s nar­ra­tor, is of hum­ble stock, a shy, shel­tered sub­ur­ban kid who was shunned at col­lege for re­sem­bling a “home­less com­puter sci­en­tist”.

Seth’s cred­i­bil­ity goes up when Carter recog­nises a fel­low mu­sic lover and be­friends him. Op­po­sites at­tract: Seth likes mod­ern sounds and wants to be “one hun­dred per cent for­ward-fac­ing, mov­ing into to­mor­row at top speed”; Carter lis­tens ex­clu­sively to black mu­sic from the past. Through marathon lis­ten­ing sessions Carter teaches Seth to ap­pre­ci­ate – or rather “wor­ship” – his favourite artists.

One day, while out in Wash­ing­ton Square with his mi­cro­phone, Seth ac­ci­den­tally records a song by an un­known singer. He plays it to Carter who be­comes ob­sessed with it. The pair re-record it with added crackle and hiss, then put it on the in­ter­net, pre­tend­ing it is a for­got­ten blues song from 1928 by an over­looked artist called Char­lie Shaw. The on­line re­sponse is wild: blues afi­ciona­dos hail it a long-lost clas­sic; buy­ers of­fer to part with thou­sands to ob­tain the sole ex­tant copy.

But soon this harm­less hoax un­leashes cat­a­strophic reper­cus­sions. A mys­te­ri­ous old collector meets Seth in a grimy bar and tells him that the record­ing is authentic and the blues mu­si­cian real. A dumb­founded Seth ex­plains to him that Carter chose the name at ran­dom. “Char­lie Shaw chose you, more like,” comes the omi­nous re­sponse. Carter is lured to the Bronx where he is at­tacked and left in a coma. Seth and Carter’s sister, Leonie, em­bark on a per­ilous jour­ney to Mis­sis­sippi to search for an­swers about a singer they thought was make-be­lieve. In time, hun­ters be­come hunted, and what started out as a dogged pur­suit of truth turns into a fever­ish quest to stay sane and alive.

In The Im­pres­sion­ist, the main char­ac­ter wan­ders through life slough­ing off one iden­tity and as­sum­ing an­other. With White Tears it is not char­ac­ters that go through var­i­ous in­car­na­tions but the novel it­self. It be­gins as a campus novel and then, as Seth be­comes fas­ci­nated by Carter’s priv­i­leged world, slides into an up­grade of Brideshead Re­vis­ited. Char­lie Shaw’s threats from be­yond the grave turn the pro­ceed­ings into a ghost story, then his im­mi­nent re­turn brings us into high-stakes thriller ter­ri­tory. “Char­lie Shaw wants some­thing from you,” Seth is told, “and it’s some­thing you prob­a­bly don’t want to give. You’ve crossed the line and now you have to pre­pare your­self.”

As Kun­zru’s blues­man-bo­gey­man cre­ates a mood of dis­quiet, the nar­ra­tive changes shape again, warp­ing into a South­ern Gothic road-trip, be­fore end­ing up a genre-de­fy­ing, re­al­i­ty­dis­tort­ing mind-game. In the may­hem, we reg­u­larly lose pur­chase but never in­ter­est. As we ap­proach the last mad acts, Seth seems less an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor as an un­sta­ble one.

De­spite all the con­spir­a­cies and cover ups, the weird con­tin­gen­cies and freak­ish con­clu­sions, Kun­zru keeps us grounded with sus­tained scenes of ab­sorb­ing in­ter­ac­tion and dis­lo­ca­tion, such as Seth’s ex­pe­ri­ence as vis­i­tor-out­sider at a lav­ish pri­vate party thrown by Carter’s brother.

And as en­tranc­ing as his manic and para­noiac episodes are, Kun­zru has more con­sis­tent suc­cess with his med­i­ta­tions on early Amer­i­can blues and his char­ac­ters’ in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm for records. Seth de­scribes his own record­ing as a one-off, “a thread on which time and mem­ory hang”. Some of the pas­sages which lead to­wards Kun­zru’s ex­plo­sive fi­nale feel like a se­ries of loose and light de­vi­a­tions – im­promptu riffs away from a score rather than fo­cused ad­her­ence to it. Ev­ery­where else, and on so many lev­els, we marvel at a mae­stro at work.

Mal­colm Forbes is a free­lance re­viewer based in Ed­in­burgh.

Hari Kun­zru Knopf, Dh68

White Tears

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