White Tears by Hari Kunzru
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was one of the books for which I had reading envy at the end of 2017, because I kept hearing good things and it ended up on so many year-end best books lists. So I cleared space for it in January after it was also shortlisted for the Tournament of Books.
This is an excellent read. It contains that rare element that I do look for, where the author takes you somewhere far from where they started. Although I had heard mentions of this being about music, and about race, I had no idea where it was headed, and it took me a few days to even wrap my brain around it.
The novel starts out focused on Seth and Carter. Carter is a rich white kid who befriends Seth over a shared love and attention to music. Seth is from a poor background but has true technological skills, and a good ear. He records what he hears walking around the city, then fragments and samples it in different ways. Carter pays for old recordings, going through phases of what he likes, and they build a library of rare sounds. They are working towards running a studio, something that Seth is more interested in. Carter has become obsessed with an old blues song that somehow ended up on one of the recordings.
Then the novel shifts. A series of tragedies twists everything around into a discussion of appropriation and ownership, creativity and race, privilege and power. The way I read it, probably because I'm a white person, I struggled to let go of feeling a connection to Seth, because of the way he is originally introduced as the underdog. I still feel a bit of a loss over the creative work he had done that he was cut off from by Carter's family.
(view spoiler)[There is another shift that I'm putting behind a spoiler tag because I didn't see it coming in anything I'd read, and it took a long time to understand. There is another shift, well, it comes much earlier than I saw it, but there is an introduction of a supernatural element. The original singer of the obsession point song becomes a presence, seeking revenge for the ways his music was not allowed to happen. Somehow he is able to create a force that takes the lives of Carter's family, through, I think (?) the hands of Seth. But Seth is not necessarily aware that he has played a role until the end. You know he does by the end because he is getting tattoos in prison for the four lives. (hide spoiler)]
So then there is the tangent of all the things I thought about after finishing the book. As an academic librarian, and as someone who has worked in a traditional music archive, full of recordings made by (mainly) white scholars of (mainly) non-white people groups, I started wondering about the role of archives and libraries in misappropriation of music. Especially in the 21st century where we spend so much time and energy putting obscure sound recordings online. But in the novel, much of what Seth and Carter collect and use comes from the dark corners of the internet, not just physical recordings. Are we doing the right thing?
And what would proper use of musical inspiration look like?
These are the big questions I still have.
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