Hari Kunzru’s new novel White Tears takes the reader on a historical rollercoaster that weaves between the real and the surreal. A novel that comments on various dimensions of the race problem in America, White Tears transports both the novel’s protagonist, Seth, and its audience between contemporary New York City and Southern states under the oppression of Jim Crow. Kunzru skillfully navigates a complex novel with a plot that is not simply entertaining, but one that also carries an important message about the notions of culture and “post-racial America.”
The Wall Street Journal claims that “Kunzru can rival…any current novelist with the strength of his prose and imaginative blondness,” and indeed his latest novel proves this statement true. A Brooklyn native, Kunzru does an incredible job of painting the city in vivid shades of grit and romance. The first half of the novel, carried by the New York City setting, portrays a tangible realism that depicts the protagonists’ specious “struggling artist” identities. Seth and Carter are two young white men with drastically different personalities. While their unlikely friendship leads them to New York after college where they attempt to kickstart their careers as music producers alongside their shared hobby of record collecting, Seth and Carter’s respective backgrounds land them as polar characters. Seth is an understated, seemingly overseen guy who hides in the shadow of Carter, the wealthy and privileged “hipster Jesus” who is constantly in the spotlight. Seth, the brains and creativity of their joint operation, gets by on the popularity and money of Carter. They believe that their joint passion for early twentieth century jazz and blues music entitles them to an understanding of black culture. In college, Carter sports dreadlocks and denounces his privilege in attempt to claim the struggle of the black artist as his own. This tension and expression of cultural appropriation leads Carter to his downfall in New York City.
While trying to sign a popular rap artist, the old tune to a song dubbed “Graveyard Blues” is on repeat in Carter’s head. Carter, with the help of Seth, forged a record claiming the voice is that of Charlie Shaw, a name Carter apparently invented when he published the song to online forums. After the record received overwhelming praise on the internet, especially from one particular collector, Carter ventured into the Bronx in search of what Seth believed was a deal involving an elusive record and the fake one they created. After this excursion, Carter mysteriously ends up hospitalized with severe injuries. Shocked, Seth and Carter’s sister, Leonie, seek out answers to Carter’s unfortunate demise. It is their quest for answers that transports Seth into different eras of race relations in America.
The second half of the novel drops the reader rather unexpectedly into a surrealist ghost story in which Seth and Leonie travel from North to South, from present to past. Under the guidance of the suspicious online collector, Seth begins to understand that his déjà vu sentiments are not mind games. Instead, Seth is repeating a journey he has made before. Seth and the online collector’s narratives alternate without warning, blurring their identities and emphasizing the devolvement of Seth’s sense of self. Throughout their life on the road, consisting of identical motels and eerie encounters with familiar figures, Seth and Leonie are ejected into a time without civil rights and one plagued by segregation. The search for the infamous Charlie Shaw throws Seth into a perilous journey that shakes his identity and history.
While the novel is an overt comment on race in America and the appropriation of black culture, it is also a comment on history and time. When Kunzru published his fourth novel Gods Without Men, he wrote in a similar style that transcended one particular age and time. With its publication, The New York Times commented on a trend in contemporary literature and followed a similar pattern as Kunzru’s writing style, one that rested on a notion that is profoundly postmodern. The notion of this new trend of “Translit” is founded on the sense of being in an era without a dominating sense of time; it rests on the sense of feeling “post,” post-colonial, post-historical or post-racial, for example. While these terms are widely disputed in their own respects, the emerging Translit genre of contemporary literature presents readers with a narrative that warps time and space in order to gain a perspective that draws on history and culture of previous eras. The comments on race that pervade the novel carry more weight in the theme of temporality that is ever present in Translit. Seth’s trips to a South under Jim Crow, juxtaposed with the injustices he experiences in the contemporary North, are examples of history repeating, of history being relived. Tormented by the spirit of Charlie Shaw, Seth relives the horrors of slavery and segregation as well as the privilege he experiences as a white man. Seth’s experience and the emotive power of music is not only haunting and profoundly resonant of historic and modern race relations. It is a statement proving that, though our clocks tick forward through minutes, hours, days, years, our minds and historic tendencies are capable of moving backwards.
Victoria Horrocks is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.