Book: “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru
Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, May 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: From one of the most talented fiction writers at work today: two ambitious young musicians are drawn into the dark underworld of blues record collecting, haunted by the ghosts of a repressive past.
Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is glamorous and the 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.
Review: There has been a strange narrative that has come out lately that I’ve had a hard time swallowing when it comes to the horror genre, and that is the idea of ‘elevating’ horror. While I think that there has been a healthy respect from creators of newer horror movies that manage to gather more from the story than just jump scares or cliches (Jordan Peele, for example), there are others that seem to think that they can ‘improve’ the genre by being more artistic or surrealistic. For example, while I liked aspects of the new “Suspiria”, I definitely felt like it had a very high opinion of itself, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would because it took itself almost too seriously. It’s not really something you see as much in literature, so I don’t go into horror stories with these worries. But I will say that I was a LITTLE worried about “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru, if only because a few people who I know who really liked it seemed to be saying that this was superior to genre horror specifically because of the literary style. That said, I was definitely interested in the themes of social justice and cultural appropriation and violence, and decided that it was finally time to pick it up. I will admit that the horror elements weren’t very horror based, at least for this fan. But everything else was executed wonderfully.
I will actually start with the weaker points in this review, just to get them out of the way. This is advertised as a horror novel, and while it absolutely has horror themes that involve possession, ghosts, and slow descents into instability, none of these themes or moments really made me feel scared, nor did they instill much dread in me. I think that part of this was the writing style choices that Kunzru made, be it the way the dialog was written or the way that sometimes things would jump around. This made it so that the scares couldn’t build up as much as they might have were the beats written in other ways. I tend to have a harder time with literary horror because of these kinds of things, and while I can appreciate authors experimenting and doing their own thing, it didn’t make the action as exciting or ‘unputdownable’ as I wanted. Even moments that could have felt merely unsettling as opposed to outright scary didn’t quite get to that level.
But honestly, the strengths of this book outweigh those issues, specifically the commentary about cultural appropriation, violence, and racism in American culture and society. Our protagonists are Seth and Carter, two white college students who think that because they study and have a fascination with American Blues that they have ownership over it. Seth isn’t nearly as entitled as Carter, whose wealth and status has really inflated his ego, but Seth definitely shares similar views when it comes to music. It’s an entitlement that is seen in American culture as white audiences consume and repackage facets from Black culture and market it to wider audiences and profit off of it. The idea that these two men think that they create a unique song and performer, only to find out that this person and his music was real, is very reminiscent of this view (even if there is something a bit supernatural about this specific instance within the story). I liked the contrast between Carter and Seth, as while Carter is clearly toxic from the get go, Seth is almost more damaging because he thinks that he is immune to these critiques because he doesn’t think he has the privileges that Carter has. Which is, of course, flagrantly ignoring his White privilege. You see a lot of White entitlement in this story, and when we finally start to see the voices of African American characters, specifically Charlie Shaw, the hypocrisy and scumbaggery of Seth, Carter, and others is highlighted and really punctuates the overall violence that artists like Shaw had to endure. I liked how Kunzru did a good job of applying the ideas of possession and haunting to the idea of cultural appropriation and the damages and injustices that it can foster. This is the kind of ‘horror elevation’ that I greatly enjoy, specifically because horror fiction, be it movies or literature, has always had some political and social commentary elements to it. “White Tears” knows how to weave those messages into this story seamlessly.
While I wish that “White Tears” had done a little bit more to scare me, I really enjoyed it for everything else that it had to offer! I should be more adventurous when it comes to literary horror, because this had some serious chops.
Rating 8: While the story wasn’t as horror centric as I had hoped, the social commentary more than made up for that.
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