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White Tears
Cover of White Tears
White Tears
A Novel
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White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music and Delta Mississippi Blues.
"An incisive meditation on race, privilege and music. Spanning decades, this novel brings alive the history of old-time blues and America's racial conscience."—Rabeea Saleem, Chicago Review of Books

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America's great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it's a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter's troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation's darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.
White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music and Delta Mississippi Blues.
"An incisive meditation on race, privilege and music. Spanning decades, this novel brings alive the history of old-time blues and America's racial conscience."—Rabeea Saleem, Chicago Review of Books

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America's great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it's a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter's troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation's darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Kunzru / WHITE TEARS



    That summer I would ride my bike over the bridge, lock it up in front of one of the bars on Orchard Street and drift through the city on foot, recording. People and places. Sidewalk smokers, lover's quarrels, drug deals. I wanted to store the world and play it back just as I'd found it, without change or addition. I collected audio of thunderstorms, music coming out of cars, the subway trains rumbling underfoot; it was all reality, a quality I had lately begun to crave, as if I were deficient in some necessary vitamin or mineral. I had a binaural setup, two little mics in my ears that looked like headphones, a portable recorder clipped to my belt under my shirt. It was discreet. No one ever noticed. I could roam where I liked and then ride home and listen back through Carter's thousand-­dollar headphones at the studio. There were always phenomena I hadn't registered, pockets of sound I'd moved through without knowing.

    Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn't careful I'd lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice traveling through the moist heavy air 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. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.

    I heard Charlie Shaw on one of those recording walks. It was evening. I don't remember why I'd gone out. Perhaps I couldn't sleep—­that happened. Perhaps I just needed to be outside or spend some time on my own. I often felt claustrophobic after long sessions; we could spend twelve hours in the studio without coming up for air. It was hot, the stifling New York heat that empties the city on July and August weekends. My shirt was clinging to my back. Passers-­by were sheened in sweat, everyone desperate for the weather to break. I was recording by the chess tables in Washington Square. A guy called PJ, evidently the home favorite, was playing another man whose name I didn't catch. They'd drawn a little crowd. There was money on the table. A bottle was being passed around.

    PJ was one of the hustlers who sit at those tables day in day out, playing all-­comers for ten bucks a time. He was a flabby white man in his fifties or sixties with thick glasses and several plastic bags of nameless crap stashed under the bench. The other player was skinny and black, hard to say how old because his face was hidden under a baseball cap. He wore a clean white undershirt and baggy blue jeans. His bare arms were painfully thin, like two twists of fuse wire. This man was taking his time over his moves, enough for some of the onlookers to be muttering and telling him to make up his mind. He ignored them. Unlike PJ, who was chatting to his buddies, he kept his head down and seemed absorbed in the game. He was a good player and soon he forced PJ to give up a knight, then his queen. There goes my rent money, said PJ to anyone who'd listen. He was stuck on the phrase, repeating it until it became a tic. Each bad move: there goes my rent money, there it goes. Something about the stranger was making the...
About the Author-
  • HARI KUNZRU is the author of four previous novels. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and his short stories and journalism have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New Yorker. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, The New York Public Library, and the American Academy in Berlin. He lives in Brooklyn.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 5, 2016
    The excellent new novel from Kunzru (Gods Without Men) opens as a coming-of-age yarn and ends as a ghost story, but its real subject is a vital piece of American history: the persistence of cultural appropriation in popular music. Twenty-something white roommates Carter and Seth are audiophiles, record collectors, and budding producers living in New York. They’re obsessed with black music, whether it’s reggae, jazz, funk, or hip-hop. When Seth records an old chess player in the park, Carter remixes it into a counterfeit blues song and markets the record as the work of an obscure black singer named Charlie Shaw. Almost immediately, they are approached by a mysterious collector who insists that Shaw is real—and after Carter is savagely beaten and left in a coma, Seth begins to discover just how real. With Carter’s sister, Leonie, for whom Seth nurses an unrequited crush, Seth undertakes a perilous journey from New York to Mississippi to unravel a mystery that weaves together the blues, obsessive collectors, and the American South. What he finds is murder and the unquiet ghost of Shaw. White Tears is a fast-paced, hallucinatory book written in extraordinary prose, but it’s also perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South. In his most accessible book to date, Kunzru takes on the vinyl-digging gentrification culture with a historical conscience.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from December 15, 2016
    Record collecting turns dangerous in a smart, time-bending tale about cultural appropriation. Seth, who narrates most of Kunzru's fifth novel (Gods Without Men, 2012, etc.), is obsessed with sound, making field recordings of his travels around Manhattan. Carter, his old college buddy and scion of a wealthy family, is similarly obsessed with old blues 78s. Together, they're an up-and-coming production team that works with white rappers and rock bands looking to make their music sound antique and "authentic." They're so good at it that, as a prank, they take Seth's recording of a Washington Square denizen singing a mordant blues song, use modern tools to faux age it, attribute it to the made-up name Charlie Shaw, and upload it, whereupon online vintage-blues fans go bonkers. Kunzru signals early on that Seth and Carter are playing with fire, from Seth's hubristic suggestion that his blues knowledge is a passkey to blackness to Carter's exclusionary and officious family, which made its fortune in private prisons. But Kunzru attacks the racism the two represent indirectly and with some interesting rhetorical twists. Carter is mysteriously beaten into a coma in the Bronx, and once Seth begins an investigation with another collector and Carter's sister, the narrative begins to deliberately decouple from logic--suggesting, for instance, that a real Charlie Shaw recorded the fake song Seth and Carter created. This weirdness reads subtly at first--a record skipping a groove, a playback glitch--but in time commands the narrative, allowing Kunzru to set the deadly mistreatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South against the hipster presumptions of whites now. Kunzru has done his homework on racial history and white privilege, but the novel is also lifted on his sharp descriptions of music, which he makes so concrete and delectable you understand why his misguided, ill-fated heroes fall so hard for it. A well-turned and innovative tale that cannily connects old-time blues and modern-day minstrelsy.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    October 15, 2016
    In this latest from Kunzru, one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, introverted Seth and wealthy Carter, great New York buddies, get blown out of their young, white lives when Seth inadvertently records an unknown singer in a park. After Carter posts the recording on the Internet, proclaiming it a long-lost 1920s blues recording by a musician named Charlie Shaw, they learn that the song and the singer are real. That leads them to a story of greed, envy, murder, and America's repressive racial past. With a 30,000-copy first printing.

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Michael Schaub, NPR "[White Tears is] a novel that's as brave as it is brutal, and it lets nothing and nobody off the hook. . . . Stunning [and] audacious . . . an urgent novel that's as challenging as it is terrifying. . . . completely impossible to put down . . . [Kunzru's] writing is propulsive, clear and bright, whether he's describing an old blues song or a shocking act of violence. . . . [White Tears] will shock you, horrify you, unsettle you, and that's exactly the point."
  • Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe "[A] truly impressive novel. . . . White Tears is Kunzru's best book yet."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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