“A dog’s breakfast” – White Tears by Hari Kunzru

wthkFor about the first half of White Tears, I thought it was the best thing Hari Kunzru had ever written. And then the wheels came off so spectacularly that by the time I was done I’d got to thinking it was the worst thing he’d ever written. Obviously the negative doesn’t cancel out the positive, and there is something to be said for a book that fashions itself a pair of wax wings and gets too close to the sun – but at the same time, when a book disappoints, when a book infuriates you to such a degree that you end up reading the last 30 pages separated out by breaks (read a page, roll your eyes, read a page, stare at the wall, read a page, abuse the cat, read a page, stare into the abyss, read a page, the abyss stares into me, you get the picture)… well, it would be rude to hold one’s tongue.

This is the story of two white boys, Seth and Carter – Seth a poor boy, and our narrator, and Carter a rich boy. Seth is interested in sound, records what he hears on microphones like earbuds, sifts and sorts through the detritus of the day for gold. Carter, meanwhile, has dough enough to buy any piece of kit that takes his fancy – until he chances upon his consumer vocation, which is to buy rarer and rarer 78s, old blues, barely whispered, hardly recorded, buried, lost and forgotten about. For a brief instant, the two make a name for themselves, producing bands and hip hop stars, dusting the phonies and the fakes with a patina of authenticity. The two of them have their squabbles (in time, we hear that Carter has his ups and downs, his moments of mania), with fisticuffs and broken mandolins very much the order of the day – but for a time the two are hardy perennials. And credit where credit is due, when he is writing about Seth, Kunzru does a great job. For a long time, Seth’s life feels true:

“Days went by, a couple of weeks. I served customers at the deli and wrote applications in a state of numb depression. I didn’t think about making music. There is a place I sometimes go to where no value attaches to anything. The world is flat. One sensation is exactly equal to the next.”

When he’s writing about people who should really check their privilege more than they do (we know Seth is poor, but he is a shadow from the outset, we don’t really have a clue as to his origins, he is the coattail rider of Carter), Kunzru is in his element. A product of wealth himself, he knows of which he speaks.

When Seth is scouring through one of his rambles across the city, Seth chances across a bluesy vocal, sung by a chessman. Later Carter drops a guitar line beneath it and sneaks it out as a rare find, attributed to a Charlie Shaw – and various collectors start to froth. One collector in particular, known only as JumpJim, starts to froth:

“WHO SOLD THIS TO YOU DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE DO YOU YOU MUST CONTACT ME !!! IMMEDIATELY!!! VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION WE HAVE TO TALK”

From this point, the book starts to become diffuse – and for a while, that’s ok. There is a tragedy, first of all. Lots of things start to go wrong for our boy Seth. He finds himself outcast. We also start to hear JumpJim’s own story, the novel admitting the first of what will eventually be other narrators. JumpJim travelled, as a young man, with a colleague, through the deep South at the height of racial tensions, attempting to buy 78s off folks who didn’t necessarily know what they had, in terms of pieces collectors might want to have. They chance across a record, a record that could possibly be the record that Seth and Carter fashion from the air many years later. But hang on, because as JumpJim is telling us his story, Seth has already moved ahead – he’s already heard the story we’re hearing, and he’s travelling in the company of Carter’s sister Leonie, a beautiful, distant trust fund kid with frustrated artistic aspirations – and she wonders what she is doing, travelling in the company of Seth. And we start to hear sentences like this:

“We have always been here but it has taught us nothing.”

If you’re reminded of the last car journey that Dale Cooper takes in the company of Diane in the last episode of the third season of Twin Peaks – well, that’s quite a useful journey to bear in mind because soon the book starts to fracture and travel in a hundred directions at once. Seth is Seth, Seth is Charlie Shaw, Seth is here and now, Seth is then, Charlie is here and now, Charlie is then. See-saw, Marjorie daw etc.

“He had followed me at other times, in other places. Papa Charlie, guardian of the crossroads, where the two worlds meet. Excuse me, excuse me, as I step across the threshold…”

Slowly but surely White Tears becomes a horror story, in the vein of Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park or Roddy Doyle’s recent Smile (and like Smile, White Tears doesn’t really earn its acceleration). What White Tears does have on its side is the same indignation that fuels Get Out, this is novel as revenge for hundreds of years of white oppression. You can call it satire, I suppose, when it gives up reality in favour of the point it’s making, and you may even be surprised by the twist that lurks at the close of the book, the big reveal applying a neatness that the book loses for a while as it spins like a dervish. The problem is that White Tears surrenders its desire to take the reader with it in favour of literary sleight of hand –

“Sometimes, when I went uptown, the elevated railway was a park. At other times, I made my way beneath the thunder of trains passing overhead. Once, there was nothing but a bridle path through farmland. I walked until the heels of my shoes had worn down. Then, one afternoon I found myself  there and all at once I had always been there, standing in the doorway of a Chinese laundry, looking at a row of buildings whose facades were caked with a hundred years of soot.”

Unmoored from history, Seth (or whatever it is he becomes) is no longer Seth, he’s a cypher for what Kunzru wants to do. Ah, you might be saying at this point, so this reviewer isn’t a person who is at home with the fantastical, who likes his books to make sense, who is the readerly equivalent of the Colonel from Monty Python (“you had a good idea and then it just went silly”). I would say no (of course). For me, White Tears‘ principal issue is that it wants to be all things and to be all things you have to be able to deliver all things well – and it doesn’t do that.

Any Cop?: By its close, White Tears is a dog’s breakfast.

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