I wasn’t quite sure what to make of White Tears, but I will tell you this: it stayed with me. I picked up this book because it was on a lot of 2017 best-of lists. It’s about Seth, an awkward young man who loves music and the technology that makes it. He meets Carter Wallace, who is everything Seth isn’t. He’s rich, connected, and confident, and also obsessed with music. He and Seth open a small recording studio in New York City when Seth accidentally records someone in Central Park singing what sounds like an old blues song.
I was worried at first that my lack of musical knowledge would make the book uninteresting. And for the first part, it’s pretty technical. I almost put it down, and then kept reading. I’m glad I did. Because this book shifts and slides and keeps turning into something unexpected. I was confused and overwhelmed but in a good way.
This is book about race, and the African-American experience, and white exploitation of black music. Interestingly, author Kunzru is described as being of English and Kashmiri Pandit ancestry. But even though he’s not African-American, this is a powerful book about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism. Maybe it’s a story that needs to be told by an outsider.
Seth, who doesn’t have any money, sees the vast class differences between himself and his friend. Carter skates by on his trust fund and wealthy family. He seems to have no concept of what the lives of other people are like. He’s obsessed with black music but has no real interest in where it came from.
Seth takes the song he accidentally recorded, puts some sound to it, and ends up with a single that sounds like it was recorded in the 20’s or 30’s. Carter puts it online and tries to pass it off as a valuable new discovery by an artist named Charlie Shaw. The community of music collectors goes wild for it.
As Seth begins to learn more about what he’s unwittingly gotten into, the book explores the history of blues music and music collection. The book takes us to the South where so much of the blues originated, and where so many horrors against African-Americans occurred. And even with my lack of musical knowledge, I was fascinated. As a narrator, Seth hasn’t done anything terribly wrong, but he has no idea what it means to be white. I find this a terribly important concept to explore right now.
There’s a dreamlike, hypnotic quality to the writing in parts of this book, which is reminiscent of the music it describes. Some parts are brutal. As I said, this is a book that stays with you, that will make you think. I’m glad I read it.