White Tears: A New Look on Life | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 06, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:24 AM, October 06, 2018

White Tears: A New Look on Life

Hari Kunzru. ISBN: 9780451493699. Deckle Edge, 2017

White Tears is the fifth novel of Hari Kunzru who is a promising writer of the time, easily distinguishable for his consummate writing skills and imaginative boldness. Born in London, Hari Kunzru is of Indian origin and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Among his most popular works, Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolution and Gods without Men have been translated in twenty four languages altogether. Also a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Public Library, and the American Academy in Berlin, this prolific writer focuses on the beautiful minute details of our life that make a human what he/she is and can potentially turn out to be as time passes them by. Placed among the best sellers of 2017, his White Tears, likewise, portrays a combination of fear and revenge regarding an individual's unusual fixation with some blues record collection recovered from the long lost past.

The pivotal character in White Tears is a young Seth from New York, who rides a bike and carries a recorder with him all the time in order to be able to record whatever he finds interesting, living in the fancy world of the NYC. His favorite subjects are New Yorkers playing chess, lovers quarreling, drug dealers singing and ranting. His mother died leaving two sons and their father behind. His father teaches Mathematics and Physics and his younger brother, a drug addict. From a native's point of view, Seth appears to be an aimless typical young American with no particular goal to achieve in life mostly because of a dysfunctional family background and the unfavorable circumstances his close ones occupied. But of course, for Kunzru, it is the ordinary that becomes the extra-ordinary as the plot progresses in a smooth and effortless stream of events.

Carter Wallace, on the other end of the economic spectrum, is a scion of a New York business baron and happens to be a close friend of Seth. He has blond dreadlocks and intricate tattoos on his hand. Seth and Carter met in an upstate liberal arts college, where Carter had a celebrated status as a DJ, getting on stage and constantly being mobbed by the students. At one part of the novel, Seth was found to help him setting up and troubleshooting the sound system in a significant gathering when nothing else was working out and no one was willing to help. Though most of his classmates sought his friendship, for that particular incidence Carter chose Seth to be his closest companion. Constantly on the wheels, Carter is depicted visiting Detroit and Cleveland and other places in his '67 Ford Galaxy, driven by the sole purpose of collecting vinyl records, particularly those of the old country music, demonstrating almost an audiophiliac fetish for analog equipments/sound systems and a pure disdain for computerized 'fake' music. In the middle of the story, Seth starts living in his studio on Carter's insistence, hinting on a strong budding friendship between the two.

As a part of his fanciful drifting in New York Park, at one point, Seth happens to record the song of a random chess player who was singing to himself at a far end of the place. It fascinates Carter when he comes across it through Seth but instead of complimenting the rap star and closing the deal, he continues tapping on his knees and humming along with the chess player's blues:


Put me under a man they call Captain Jack

Put me under a man they call Captain Jack

He wrote his name all down my back


After that, he goes to a frat party humming the song and on the spur of the moment, thinks of setting up a recording studio. He goes to a recording executive, and everything proceeds just the way he wants, making the rising music producer a very happy man. The first song he records is the one he listened from Seth and we are given a flashback of the moment when Seth stood before the musician for the first time, awestruck and stupefied at the sheer beauty of the lyrics as well as the vocal. As Carter plays it on with Seth standing in front, the street noise fades, even the dogs. There is only the sound of the guitar and the instrument seems to be wailing and moaning. The sound is clear and vivid like crystals bathed in a river. Seth feels like standing in front of the guitarist himself. To his amazement, the chess player's vocal seems deleted over the guitar alone. But Carter tells him to wait for it, and then there it was:


Believe I buy a graveyard of my own

Believe I buy a graveyard of my own

Put my enemies all down on the ground


Put me under a man they call Captain Jack

Put me under a man they call Captain Jack

He wrote his name all down my back


Finally after recording the song, Carter uploads it online:


Charlie Shaw Graveyard Blues

Tag(s): 78 rpm old-time


It was like someone has dropped a bomb as there are inquiries from all over the world, Germany, Australia and even one from Japan! Carter feels exultant about it being hailed as a masterpiece, but Seth, on the other hand, resents for the unforeseen mass attention it is attracting with the vocalist himself lost in oblivion. And ultimately, the unavoidable happens when someone from the audience named Jumpjim questions about the source of the song and strongly urges to contact him. Carter deems it funny and a hollow threat, paying no attention to the confrontation that was to follow him soon.

Eventually, Seth meets the fellow, an old man with white hair, worn out blue glasses, and an unpleasant scab on his head. He feels rather disappointed with Seth and asks for the copyright of the record. Seth learns that he is none other than Chester Bly, a formerly known old record collector who very logically, wants recognition for the voice he lent to his own recorded track.

However, a tragedy awaits as near the Hunts Point of Bronx, Carter is brutalized by unidentified thugs, leaving him unconscious. Carter's sister Leonie comes over to the studio and demands to know about Seth's association with her brother. Skeptical about it all, she takes Seth to the hospital to be identified and see the unconscious Carter. However her parents and her other brother Cornelius are dismissive of Seth.

Amidst it all, Seth keeps on meeting Bly where Leonie keeps on visiting the studio and even spending nights there. Seth tries his best to socialize with them but to no avail. Cornelius is in command now. But in time, Leonie's relationship with Seth begins to normalize and with everything comparatively settled in place, he visits different places with Bly in search of clues as to identify those who brutalized Carter, but for Bly only old records matter more than anything, at least more than someone he hardly knows or has even heard of.

The rich Wallace family, however, looks on Seth as a scavenger and Cornelius throws him out of the studio. More tragedies seem to follow as Leonie dies of an overdose of sleeping pills in Jackson, Mississippi. To compound it Chester Bly dies in a heater accident! After that, Seth is found visiting Chester Bly's room inside a dark old building. The room is damp with red bricks jutting out of their places here and there. He hears quick steps coming up, and the cops take him away for questioning. He is interrogated, punched badly, and beaten up without a cause. With no evidence of him being linked with Leonie's/Bly's death, He is set free, though badly mauled. At last, Seth goes to the St. James Hotel with a knife in his hand. Seth tries to put his enemy down, his tormentors, the Wallaces. But the vengeful project ends rather abruptly with him being lost without a trace.

In essence, White Tears is a cultural satire, indictment of the rich man's society. The Wallace family like Carter himself, is engaged in fanciful pursuit that in reality matters but little. Tragedy follows each of the characters with Carter and Leonie gone. Tears are shed as Seth is lost. What is left is only the sound from the old record of Bly duly kept in Carter's collection. In lieu of the song, it was a terrifying laughter that came out of the vinyl, a laughter that the modern times of self-reflexive complexities constantly discover and rediscover...ha ha ha!


Syed Maqsud Jamil is an occasional contributor at the Daily Star literature page.

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