Blues dabblers

Blues dabblers

Lead review

Blues dabblers

Blues is the archaeology of the American dream. In Hari Kunzru’s new novel, White Tears, the blues — the music born of slavery — represents the excavation of a promise the country broke the moment that promise was made. But the story’s narrator, Seth, and his friend Carter don’t realise they’re archaeologists, don’t know they’re excavating broken promises; still in their 20s, they think they’re big-shot music producers collecting and processing random sounds. In some ways the two are very different. Carter is charismatic, volatile, coasting through Manhattan’s pleasures on the fumes of apparently inexhaustible family money. Seth is introverted and intimidated by any personal interaction, let alone one that takes place in society’s higher ether: “I pass through the world, but I leave no trace.” Together, though, they seem to have what it takes as a team, sharp white boys on the hustle and at the precipice of major commercial success, initially sharing little regard for anything older than the latest phone or anything that can’t be commodified. In other words, they’re young Americans.

A month after Seth makes a routine excursion through Washington Square to record the sonic detritus of park life, the partners isolate on the playback a song that doesn’t belong, sung by a singer who wasn’t there, that sounds as if it has floated in from a distant past. As a hoax and for the sake of provocation, the two make a viral hit of the recording by passing it off as a lost blues classic sung by a lost blues legend they invent — until a strange online exchange alerts them that the song and its singer may be real. As Seth and Carter seek to solve the mystery of the recording, what follows is a haunting, a possession, and an exorcism at no small human cost.

Teaming up with Leonie, Carter’s sister and the object of Seth’s unrequited crush, the men believe they’re in pursuit of the music, when the music itself is the pursuit, down a rabbit hole somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s the first of many signs that the characters have no idea what they’re dealing with: the harmonic memory of a country’s evil and of a dream betrayed before anyone hummed it, from which nearly all other post-19th-century Western music grew into other vibrant incarnations: ragtime, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, rhythm and blues, pop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, rap and hip-hop. Every time America listens to its music, it comes to grips — whether we realise it or not — with the chapter of a story we haven’t wanted to hear for 150 years. To the apparitions of history that Seth and Carter conjure, however, all those musical offspring are bastards of the pure thing that is the blues. ‘Authenticity’ is a fetish, Seth realises, that then becomes inauthentic by the very nature of fetishisation.

The most innocent of the characters and the one most burdened by conscience and good faith, Seth is set loose by his recording’s ghost voice onto a highway marked by a hundred crossroads, where countless Robert Johnsons and Blind Willies and Blind Lemons and all those menacing wailers named after wolves have sold their souls to the devil. As the novel unfolds, we sense that Seth has secrets of his own to solve and promises of his own to keep. As his road keeps forking in time and outlook, he becomes Faulkner’s Joe Christmas in an era when identity is a mixtape, his voice increasingly interchangeable with that of the ghost who may or may not exist.

As foreign authors relocated to our shores sometimes do, the British-Indian Kunzru brings a canny and original insight to his American subject in all of his work. Kunzru’s awareness and discernment have particular value in an America of the moment where nothing less than the country’s meaning is at stake. White Tears is distinguished by a knowledge of blues at its deepest, a gift for observation at its most penetrating and stretches of plain old marvellous writing, some swallowing up the pages around them the way a single song — A Change Is Gonna Come, say, or A Day in the Life — swallows up the side of an album. Kunzru is particularly eloquent and evocative when it comes to music’s mysteries, the way music reverses time’s flow, “slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster,” and how the radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi believed “if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to the sound of ancient times” and to those enigmas exposed “continuously at the edge of perception.” In an elegy for himself that could also be for the rest of us, Seth wonders, “When did I lose touch with the future?” before that elegy gets flipped on its head: When did the future lose touch with us? “I remember how imminent it used to feel, how exciting. The old world was dissolving, all the grime of the past sluicing away in digital rain. The future was reflective, metallic. Soon liquid drops of mercury would reconstitute themselves into spacecraft, weapons, women and men. Now I would say the future is behind me. It is, in any case, out of my reach.”

A little more than halfway through, when things happen that don’t entirely add up even on the book’s terms, the reader gets the feeling that the narrative relies on the author’s stellar writing a bit excessively. And sometimes Seth is clueless enough to annoy the reader almost as much as he annoys other characters who are more annoying than he is; his attraction to Leonie may not exactly be a head-scratcher — she’s the beautiful daughter of a privilege that Seth never had — but it’s shallow and unworthy of him nonetheless. But in the final quarter the story regains its bearings, grasps us in its intensity and then gathers force, offering its strongest passages and revealing, in this Book of Secrets, the biggest secret of all, and one that often only a stranger’s perspective recognises: the sense of possibility that was not only a young black bluesman’s in an unforgiving South but the Republic’s; the sense of possibility that hovers in every song heard just out of earshot, just beyond that edge of perception that the author has defined.

This is Kunzru’s song that we’ve never really heard but are certain we have. This is the song that winds up unmoored between the heart that’s felt it and the tip of the tongue that awaits the heart’s transmission; the song that dies with its singer until it rises like a spirit to wander American ground, in search of a promise that’s determined to keep itself.

White Tears
Hari Kunzru
2017, pp 288
Rs 599