In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Three Minutes of DarknessTheo Tait
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
White Tears 
by Hari Kunzru.
Hamish Hamilton, 271 pp., £14.99, April 2017, 978 0 241 27295 4
Show More
Show More

In​ 1903, W.C. Handy, the self-proclaimed ‘father of the blues’, was touring Mississippi with his band, the Colored Knights of Pythias, when he fell asleep at a railway station in Tutwiler, just south of Clarksdale, waiting for a long-delayed train. As he recorded in his autobiography, he woke with a start to hear the blues for the first time:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar next to me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.

‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’

The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

Musical historians have seen Handy’s rambling guitarist as the archetypal Delta bluesman, a precursor to Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson: vagrants, rounders, always on the move – pursued, as Handy put it, by ‘suffering and hard luck’, conceiving their music ‘in aching hearts’.

Hari Kunzru’s new novel is, among other things, a fictional meditation on the figure of the bluesman, on the complex allure of the prewar recordings that later musicians and enthusiasts came to see as the fountainhead of modern popular music: ‘lone guitarists playing strange abstract figures, scraping the strings with knives and bottlenecks and singing in cracked, elemental voices about trouble and loss’. One character describes these musicians, many of them little more than a name on a record, as ‘ghosts at the edges of American consciousness’; Kunzru’s book, which starts as a satire about the search for authenticity, develops into a ghost story about white visions of black music.

White Tears begins in New York in the recent past, and spirals back to the South, first in the late 1950s, then finally thirty years before that. Thematically, it culminates in the forced labour of the Mississippi levee camps of the 1920s, but it starts off in the lap of white privilege. Seth and Carter run a music studio in present-day Brooklyn, with a thriving practice in making new bands sound old. They are ‘artisans of analogue’: ‘Add surface noise, a hint of needles ploughing through static, throw the whole thing back in time.' Big British bands thank them for making their ‘generic three-chord songs’ sound ‘like Skip James’. In a flashback, Seth and Carter make friends at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. They were an odd couple: Seth was an introverted ‘weird kid’ who dressed like a ‘homeless computer scientist’, while Carter ‘was cool. Blond dreadlocks, intricate tattoos, a trust fund he didn’t hesitate to use to further the cause of maximum good times.’ But they shared a deep bond: an ‘obsessive commitment to music’ and to audio technology.

Carter, whose apparently limitless family money and self-confidence power the enterprise, ‘listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if “white people” were the name of an army or a gang, some organisation to which he didn’t belong.’ The quest for authenticity drives him slowly back into the past: dismissing digital music as mere ‘ones and zeroes’, he dives back through early hip hop and dub, to 1960s soul, then to doo-wop bands and early electric blues, until eventually he ends up ‘as far back in audio time as you could go’, with a stack of original 78 rpm records of 1920s and 1930s country blues artists. So the novel’s inciting incident seems like something that Carter has ‘summoned’ from the past.

In the opening chapter, Seth, the narrator, is roaming Manhattan on foot, as is his habit, recording everything on his machine. ‘People and places. Sidewalk smokers, lovers’ quarrels, drug deals … it was all reality, a quality I had lately begun to crave, as if I were deficient in some necessary vitamin or mineral.’ He is watching the chess hustlers in Washington Square when he sees a skinny black man, his face hidden under a baseball cap, his arms ‘painfully thin, like two twists of fuse wire’, take down the local champion. As the victor counts his winnings, Seth hears him sing, and repeat, a single line of blues. Playing the recording back later on, he is amazed to hear not just that line but a whole song, lasting several minutes. The song, adroitly concocted by Kunzru from a series of well-known and less well-known blues phrases, begins like this:

Believe I buy a graveyard of my own
Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own
Put my enemies all down in the ground
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
Put me under a man they call Captain Jack
Wrote his name all down my back

(In Son House’s 1942 song ‘County Farm Blues’, Captain Jack is the ‘prison driver’ – the overseer of the work gang – at the ‘county farm’, the penitentiary. Asked what he meant when he sang, ‘He’ll sure write his name up and down your back,’ House replied: ‘That means beat you up.’)

Seth plays the song to Carter; they both find it ‘mesmerising’. They stay up until six in the morning, ‘cleaning up the recording and deciphering the words’, filtering out the background noise until they have ‘a clear a capella’. Carter is ‘enchanted’; Seth is too, but the song makes him uneasy. He has ‘an instinct to cover my ears, to unhear what I was hearing’. Later, Carter finds a recording that Seth has made, but has no memory of making, of a busker playing blues guitar: ‘someone fingerpicking in a weird open tuning that made the instrument seem to wail and moan’. It fits perfectly with the chess player’s vocal. They lay one over the other, and fake it up so it sounds like a worn 78: ‘Make it dirty,’ Carter says. ‘Drown it in hiss. I want it to sound like a record that’s been sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years.’ Carter puts it online, claiming that it’s a 1928 recording of ‘Graveyard Blues’ by Charlie Shaw, a name he has made up. And ‘in the tiny confines of the prewar blues internet, it was like someone had dropped a bomb.’ Collectors go crazy, offering thousands of dollars for the record. One of them, who calls himself JumpJim and writes everything in capitals, is desperate to meet up: he claims to have heard Charlie Shaw’s ‘Graveyard Blues’ once before, in 1959. Their creation appears to have developed a life of its own.

The first seventy or so pages of White Tears are written in a style that Kunzru has pretty much down to perfection: smart, with a light touch, and a dark, vaguely occultish undercurrent. Much of it is devoted to the satirical analysis of hipster codes, and riffs on general cultural bogusness. Soon after their studio starts offering ‘ye old stereophonicke sounde’, we are told: ‘Carter cut off his dreads and began to dress as if the year was 1849 and he was heading west to pan for gold.’ He is not alone. Brooklyn is full of ‘hobos and mountain men and Pony Express riders’. Seth gradually realises that ‘they weren’t 19th-century revivalists at all. They were sixties revivalists, revivalists of the western revival of the 1960s. Their girlfriends wore ponchos and wide floppy hats and everyone photographed each other with old-timey filters, sepia and bleached-out yellow.’ Kunzru has the pair meet a famous white hip hop artist who wants to pay his dues to black music by releasing an album of classic covers, from ragtime through 1950s R’n’B to 1980s boogie. A record executive with ‘walnut skin and a facelift that made him look like a pilot in a centrifuge’ ushers Seth and Carter in to meet the rapper, who perches on the edge of a lounger, ‘cradling a chai and explaining that essentially he considered himself a curator’.

Running underneath this is a mood of technologically enhanced unease. Carter – shades of Gene Hackman in The Conversation – seems in some way to be losing his mind to the Charlie Shaw recording, obsessively playing it again and again. Seth reveals that in his teens he had a breakdown after his mother’s death, when he shut himself in his room and recorded the sounds of the house: ‘I began to hear the past, the ambience of the room as it had been ten years previously, then twenty years, then fifty.’ He notes that Marconi, the inventor of the radio, ‘believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world. Marconi thought that if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to the sound of ancient times.’ Even the act of listening to an old recording feels like a seance: Seth describes the voice, way back in the past, travelling ‘to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place’.

It’s all cleverly patterned, thematically, without disrupting the momentum of the story, which is advanced with a series of vivid vignettes. Seth, for instance, goes with Carter to his family mansion in Virginia for a party, revealing both the extent of his friend’s family wealth, and his difficult relationship with it. Briefly, the book seems like a Brideshead Revisited for the era of the 1 per cent, right down to Seth’s yearning for both the troubled son and the alluring daughter of the family, Leonie. And there is a pleasing mystery to it all, as the first notes of the uncanny seep into the story.

As so often, the problems come when the scheme behind the mystery becomes apparent. There is an eruption of violence – Carter is savagely attacked – for reasons that are at first unexplained. But Seth becomes convinced that ‘whatever happened to Carter had to do with the song, with the three minutes of darkness we had released into the world.’ Desperate for answers, he makes contact with JumpJim, who turns out to be an elderly alcoholic, dirty and borderline deranged. From this point on, it becomes clear that we have entered a more identifiable, and vastly less credible, kind of story: the curse of the wandering bluesman, it might be called. Read a sentence like the following, and you suddenly have a pretty clear sense of where you are: ‘The story the old collector told me was so strange that, had I heard it in any other circumstances, I would have dismissed it as a fabrication.’ It could almost be a line out of Lovecraft or M.R. James.

There are three separate strands to the second half of the book. The first is JumpJim’s story within a story, about how he became a collector of old blues records in the late 1950s under the tutelage of one Chester Bly, a heroin-addicted copy editor; and how they made a journey to the South together to buy old records from black people, before they had their fateful encounter with Charlie Shaw’s ‘Graveyard Blues’. The second strand involves Seth and Leonie retracing that journey in the time-honoured tradition of the horror story, determined to exorcise the bad stuff despite the obvious risks to life and sanity: ‘Something had attached itself to Carter and me, some tendril of the past, and if we did not detach it, we would be drawn back into death and silence.’ And in the middle of it all is Charlie Shaw’s story, about a wrong done to him a long time ago. Kunzru tells this part of the story in such a way that it could all conceivably be a figment of Seth’s increasingly deranged imagination. There is a series of David Lynch-style time-slip and personality-slip effects. One moment he is in jail in present-day Mississippi; the next he’s a black man in the 1920s, charged with a crime he didn’t commit.

The second half of the book is skilfully constructed, page by page. JumpJim’s story is excellent in parts, with its evocation of pioneering blues-collecting circles in 1950s New York, and their attempts to part suspicious but cowed black folks from their records. Chester Bly poses as a clergyman, carrying a big Bible: ‘He would adopt a bantering manner, laughing loudly, slapping his non-Bible hand against his chest in counterfeit glee. It went over less well than he thought. Those old pickers and sharecroppers had seen carpetbaggers in their time.’ But there is something fundamentally awry in the novel’s very contemporary combination of theoretical sophistication and dumbed-down generic underpinnings.

A novel​ is not a proposition, but it sometimes comes close to being one. White Tears is in part a thesis on the white cultural appropriation of black music – inspired, as Kunzru’s acknowledgments make clear, by Marybeth Hamilton’s interesting book In Search of the Blues. Hamilton argues that the whole idea of the ‘Delta Blues’ was largely a retrospective fiction. Robert Johnson, for instance, only ever sold a handful of records in his lifetime. A sociologist who surveyed the black bars of the Mississippi Delta late in the Depression found not a single local performer on the jukeboxes. Instead, people there were listening to the same music as the rest of black America: Count Basie, Fats Waller, Lil Green. Johnson’s significance is largely an invention of later white enthusiasts looking for a particular primitive thrill in their black music: what the field recordist John Lomax, who toured the prisons and work camps of the South in the 1930s, called ‘uncontaminated’ black singing, not spoiled by the record companies and the cities. In Hamilton’s account, the collectors were often explicitly racist – looking for music unsullied by the corrupted ways of the city Negro.

In one entertaining scene, Chester Bly (who is based on the ill-fated blues collector James McKune) wanders into a black juke joint on the wrong side of the tracks in Mississippi and finds ‘Goddamn Sam Cooke’ on the jukebox. He erupts in fury, ordering the bemused locals to ‘Forget this plastic trash! Pick up a fife! A fiddle! Blow over a damn jug!’ But White Tears also extends this theme in an explicitly political direction. There is in this novel something culpable, almost vampiric, about white men who are interested in the blues. Chester has a ‘lust’ for records, and ‘avaricious eyes’. In search of a crucial 78, ‘his greed is naked. He is totally powerless to hide it’; there is ‘something repulsively sexual in his tone’. Carter, for his part, is bent on owning the blues. ‘Who knows the tradition?’ he asks exultantly, after conning the online blues world with his Charlie Shaw record. ‘We do! We own that shit!’ Record collecting is cast as robbery, even as grave robbery – Carter, it has been pointed out, shares his name with the archaeologist who excavated Tutankhamun’s tomb. And we all know what happens to grave robbers in sensationalist fiction.

There’s a whiff of silliness about all this. The body count mounts up, as if Kunzru has decreed that in his fictional world cultural appropriation will be punishable by death. Meanwhile, he solemnly arranges his material so as to cast a meaningful light on contemporary America: there are regular references to police shootings and the incarceration of black people, to Black Lives Matter and the debate over reparations for slavery. Charlie Shaw, it turns out, is a spectre returning to reclaim an unpaid debt, while Carter’s family’s business empire is founded on privatised correctional facilities with murky roots in the Jim Crow South. The title is a reference to an internet meme, which involves poking fun at white self-pity by posting pictures of pathetic blubbing white men, with captions such as: ‘Won’t someone please think of the white people?’ But in Kunzru’s novel it has an entirely different resonance, a vengeful significance. In the final chapter, Seth’s narration moves into an accusatory second person, intoning: ‘On your record deck, you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn’t have, the authority you thought it would bring.’

The difficulty is that supporting all this weighty subject matter is a story that inspires little confidence. In his earlier novels, such as his last book, Gods without Men, Kunzru managed to incorporate what he called ‘non-rational elements’ effectively. Here the real problem isn’t so much the supernatural theme, or Kunzru’s cultural politics, as the second-hand nature of the plot. Seth and Carter have, it seems, created a monster. The wronged wraith is returning to claim its due. The merit of originality, as Carlyle had it, is not novelty; it is sincerity. And in the later parts of the book, the unmistakable note of hokum infects much of the writing. Charlie Shaw’s voice, we learn, is ‘ancient and bloody and violent and it is coming for me, hunting for me as I sink lower and lower, into the darkness’. Unfortunately, Kunzru’s often subtle and insightful disquisition on authenticity suffers badly from the lack of it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.