Monday, May 22, 2017

White Tears

Like, whoa.  I probably wouldn't have picked up this book if Jenny hadn't recommended it and called it incredibly scary. It's about music aficionados, and music is none of my business.  But it's a ghost story, and ghosts are most distinctly my business, so here we are.

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru, is about Seth, who is an oddball audiophile, and his best friend Carter, who is a wealthy dilettante audiophile. They live in New York on Carter's money, collect old blues records, and produce music, giving it a classic sound and printing it on vinyl.  Carter is obsessed with older and older records, more authentic, less heard--true blues, he says, is played on the porch and on the corner, not in the nightclub.

I mentioned Seth is an oddball, right?  He wanders around the city recording ambient noise to play back later.  One day, he records a singer in the park.  Carter becomes obsessed, lays a guitar track over it, and pretends that it's a long lost record by a made up blues man, Charlie Shaw. But when they put it online, they hear from a collector who has heard the record before.  And then things go all Big Tuna.*

So this is a ghost story and it's creepy as hell.  It's also a ghost story where you're kind of rooting for the ghost.  From the beginning, Carter and Seth are not a likeable pair.  Carter is a pushy, privileged rich kid who is obsessed with the pursuit of "authenticity," the ultimate hipster appropriation of the work of marginalized people.  If you get less marginalized, then you are less authentic, which is why Carter is obsessed with early blues records. 

Seth, our narrator, is the kind of nonentity that you start out feeling sorry for--he doesn't get people!  He's socially awkward!--and end up finding incredibly off-putting because he lets people walk all over him. He's so complicit in Carter's awfulness that he's not really sympathetic either, and the fact that he lets it go is almost worse.  There's a scene where they're trolling a guy on the internet--casually, almost as a throwaway moment--that is just the worst. 

Then there's Carter's sister Leonie, who is also rich and privileged, though she seems to have her head on straighter than Carter.  But because Seth has a serious creeper-crush on her, we really only see her as an object of his desire, and just about the only other person in his world.

Okay, but let's get to the point here--this is a book about race, in which there are pretty much zero black characters.  This is a book about guys who worship the music of black people but don't know any black people, and are afraid to go into their neighborhoods.  This is about privilege that doesn't recognize itself, and #notallwhitepeople #exceptreallyallwhitepeople.  It's about appropriation lifted up and taken all the way through to the horrifying extreme--and the results of that.

I wanted it to be cathartic, just because it was so horrifying in so many ways.  But even when things follow the path that you would script for catharsis, it doesn't really come to that.  Revenge may or may not be justice, and it may or may not be necessary, and better than nothing, but it can still leave you cold, and dead, and lost.

I hope that doesn't sound like a pan--this was an incredible book.  I'd recommend it for people who like their fiction stylish with a lot of substance, too.  I am thinking Brenda will love this, because it's so damned creepy.  So. Damned. Creepy.

*This is a reference to the point at which David Lynch's movie Wild at Heart goes from weird to creepy-doomed weird.

1 comment:

Aarti said...

Ooh, I did not know that this was a creepy book! I wanted to read it before because, er, Indian author. But I also REALLY don't like scary things. But I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So... would I like? What do you think?