“So tell me, was that a black thing or a white thing? No, that was music.”
Whoever knew that record collecting could be so violent? White Tears is a haunting novel that revolves around record collecting, cultural appropriation, and the ownership of music. It is a very dark tale that gives voice to the ghosts of obsession, racism, and exploitation. At the center of the novel is a piece of blues music: a song that may or may not exist by a remnant of a man who may have been invented.
White Tears is a strange and terrifying tale that pulls off the amazing feet of getting to the soul of American racism. It is a story that begins with and maintains a high level of realism then shifts, becomes part horror with elements of the supernatural. It may seem the book goes off the rails at this point, because the continuity differs from what the reader has come to expect, and it certainly takes a while to feel like it's back “on track.” In the end, the pieces all come together and make a solid portrait of obsession and vengeance. Despite the instability this abrupt midpoint change may cause, the book never loses its cadence or brilliance.
And it is brilliantly written. It works on several levels and the more one contemplates it, the more one may find. For instance, it just dawned on me right now that throughout the novel, there's an obsession with “What's on the B side?” of this mysterious song. The book is similarly divided. The first half is straight-forward and audible. But the second half—that's the unknown.
Hari Kunzru's latest is unique and breathtaking in a sea of books that often mimic one another. It takes some flexibility from a reader and certainly demands one's full attention, but it's worth the effort.