If there’s a common thread connecting Mike Pence’s incongruous presence at the diversity-celebrating play Hamilton to the ubiquitous use of Bruce Springsteen’s proletariat anthem “Born in the U.S.A.” by anti-union politicians or to Frito-Lay tapping a Tom Waits sound-alike to sell Doritos (Waits sued), it is this: give us the song and forget the singer. “Things aren’t weightless,” is how Hari Kunzru puts it. “They do come with histories, and they do come with consequences.”
Kunzru recalls growing up in the 1970s, the son of an Indian doctor and an English mother, in a nearly all-white suburb of London where soul music and R&B were all the rage. “You could sing along to songs about the ghetto and nothing would change about social relations between blacks and whites,” he tells me at Smooch, a café in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. “I don’t think you can listen to this music unless you imagine the place it came from and the complexity of its roots.”
Black music as channeled by affluent whites is the subject of Kunzru’s new novel, White Tears (Knopf, Mar. 2017). On the surface, it is the story of how Seth and Carter—two hip, young white bedroom deejays in Brooklyn—manufacture a phony blues song from an audio sample remixed with an old-timey acoustic riff, call their concoction “Graveyard Blues,” and credit the (invented) singer as an obscure bluesman named Charlie Shaw. Even as they begin to profit from their prank, Seth and Carter are contacted by an obsessive collector of 78 records named Chester Bly, who claims that Shaw is not only real but that he is a ghost whose unheard music carries a curse. What follows is a perilous journey from urban audiophilia to rural jail yards and desolate Southern highways.
At its heart, White Tears is both a socially conscious race novel and a fable, albeit a particularly bloody one. Ghost story is probably a better way to put it, except the ghost here is the buried past of American music itself. Kunzru defines the ghost story as being about something repressed, some “unfinished business from the past that emerges in order to make itself felt and present.” The mysterious figure of Shaw is partially based on blues musician Lead Belly, who was discovered by field-recording pioneer Alan Lomax and brought to New York, where he played shows dressed in prison stripes for the amusement of white, left-leaning blues fans. “I loved reading about these Lomax types who had conducted these rescue missions, going down and knocking on doors in the South at a time when that was a complex thing to be doing,” Kunzru says, “basically grubbing up these recordings from the dirt—Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt.”
This is the kind of loaded racial inquiry that fascinates Kunzru: the dichotomy between the “bland, defanged Budweiser blues” that positions the singer as a quasi-holy troubadour and the much-less-romantic reality behind legends such as that of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads. “You may bury my body / Down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit / Can get a Greyhound bus and ride,” Kunzru quotes from Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.” He adds, “You have to get used to listening through the static,” referring to the so-called Blues Mafia, which popularized the blues among white former jazz listeners in 1960s Greenwich Village.
If Shaw is White Tears’ rendition of Lead Belly, Johnson, and Patton, the sinister vinyl hoarder Chester Bly is its answer to early collectors such as Lomax, legendarily eccentric James McKune, and Harry Smith, whose Anthology of American Folk Music was the book’s earliest inspiration. “It’s not a straightforward story of white people exploiting black creativity,” Kunzru says. “There’s something they brought with their love and their curation and all these intellectual secondary impulses. They did a mighty work for culture in this country; that stuff would have vanished because it was produced and consumed outside the mainstream circuits.”
When I ask if this question of curatorial responsibility extends to literature, Kunzru mentions David Shields and “uncreative writing” advocate Kenneth Goldsmith as proponents of the idea that the modern writer is a cultural magpie picking away at fragments of the postmodern wasteland. “That’s more appealing if you feel that you belong to a culture where all your stories have all been told and maybe less if you find it hard to get your stories told at all.”
For all its dredging of the musical past, this is the very modern upshot that Kunzru is taking aim at in White Tears—namely, the complacency of northern-coastal intellectual circles and their complicity in racist structures. “I wanted to tell a story where these privileged young white people, moving in circles like this place we’re in”—he gestures at Smooch’s clientele of bearded caffeine addicts tapping away at their laptops—“would be connected back by a thread to things they would find uncomfortable to admit.”
Where on this line does Kunzru locate himself? “Right bang in the middle,” he says. Growing up interracial in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher, he notes that he was never allowed to feel fully English, even as he enjoyed a comfortable education. His parents faced their families’ disapproval, though this disapproval had largely been overcome by the time Kunzru was absorbing the Western canon and studying literature at Oxford. There he eschewed the then-literary-Britannia zeitgeist of Amis, Barnes, and McEwan for American maximalists such as Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. These were the writers who influenced Kunzru’s early, unpublished (and, to hear him tell it, unpublishable) novels, which preceded 2003’s The Impressionist. He calls his first novel “a baggy monster of a book” in which he attempted to parse his dual Indian/British heritage, both in terms of identity and literary lineage.
Transmission followed in 2005. For this novel, which concerns the attempts of a West Coast computer programmer to play both sides of the antivirus world, Kunzru drew on his experiences as an editor at the British edition of Wired magazine in the late 1990s. During this time, he also took part in the flourishing rave scene, which was fostering hopes among devotees for a digital utopia to equal the utopias of the youth movements of the 1960s.
Looking back, Kunzru says, “I think the 26-year-old tech head me would be pretty appalled by what the Internet turned out to be.” It was in coming to terms with this disillusionment that he wrote his third novel, My Revolutions, which revisits the often-forgotten history of leftist terrorists in the U.K. In 2008, Kunzru was named a New York Public Library Fellow and came to the U.S. for an intended six months. Instead, he stayed on in the States to write his opus, 2011’s sprawling and well-received Gods Without Men, a novel fraught with questions of utopianism and metaphysical belief structures. It was also during his research trips to the desert that he began listening to the recordings collected by Lomax and Smith before WWII that would shape White Tears. “This time around,” Kunzru reflects, “I wanted to write something that was very tight and quite explicitly had a genre element: a ghost story that could incorporate all these anxieties.”
Some of those anxieties go back to his earliest memories of mod London and its infatuation with black Americana, while others are born of the upheavals following Barack Obama’s election. “I found out about the civil rights movement through soul records,” Kunzru says. “As I got more sophisticated in my knowledge of the cultural landscape, I realized there was this real tension between love of cultural forms and political reality. I moved here thinking that I knew about America’s continuing relationship with its antebellum history, its unfinished civil rights movement. But I was shocked at the backlash and resentment against the first black president from a lot of white people. My time here has, I think, been dominated completely by this story about race, which is the ghost haunting almost all of its aesthetic output.”
At the same time, Kunzru is wary of those “fierce gatekeepers” whose preservation of purity and authenticity leads them to limit who can write toward what experience. “The blues is great art and has a capability of being able to speak outside the conditions of its production,” Kunzru says. “So someone like me can sit down and cry over a Chuck Patton record. You have to have some kind of willingness to let the work go where it will, and find its audience where it will. It has to touch people you never thought it could touch, it has to make connections in strange places.” This is where history and consequences come in. They are real, Kunzru says, “But at the same time you have to be able to misuse them.”
J.W. McCormack’s work has appeared in Bookforum, Conjunctions, the New York Times, and Vice.