The catastrophe of a blast from the past
What begins with a crackly recording results in a cracking good thriller, says Malcolm Forbes
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.