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.