Whether an author can write from the perspective of an ‘other’ is a matter of contention within the literary community. There are whole texts devoted to the topic and a Goodreads review isn’t complete if it doesn’t touch on how well an author portrayed a blind genderqueer human. Of course, in reality this just means that any white authors who attempt to create a character sheet full of diversity or who try to empathise with another culture are going to be held accountable for a huge range of atrocities. Any perceived slight will be jumped upon, all crimes tallied and the author torn asunder. And if the author attempts to rebuff such accusations, such as Lionel Shriver did at last years Brisbane Writers Festival, then the inevitable calls of ‘white tears’ will start to echo across the web.
Enter Hari Kunzru. Hari is and always has been a provocateur, someone who clearly likes to prod at volatile topics. He received the John Llewelyn Rhys prize, but turned it down due to the editorial line of the Mail on Sunday, one of the sponsors of the prize (or possibly the namesake of the prize was too overtly white). In 2012 he, alongside other authors, read out from The Satanic Verses, prompting security concerns. And with his latest novel, he’s deliberately plugging into the zeitgeist of race relations and internet irony. Indeed, he is being quite aggressive with the title ‘White Tears’.
It takes quite a confidence to be able to write a book about cultural appropriation while also culturally appropriating the subject matter. He’s a Brit of Kashmiri Pandit background writing about two white Americans who are appropriating the music of African American blues musicians. At no point does he address this contradiction, and at no point has anyone else seemingly pointed this out. But it’s all metaphor, right? No harm done. The book itself reads like an old vinyl, the first half (the A-side) setting up our two white protagonists, and the B-side descending into full-blown racial horror. It’s a ghost story that plays with notions of time, authenticity, and race, but like a needle jump the further into the book the more confusing and conflated it gets.
Nominally this is a book about race relations. Our protagonist, Seth, is a loser white dude who befriends Carter, a rich white dude. Carter opens Seth’s eyes to the world of black music, and in particular the blues. Together they start a production studio (using Carter’s family’s money) but it’s when they seemingly create a song from public recordings that things get weird. They overlay a vocal track over a guitar riff which together sound like an old school blues song. As we find out, the music is the literal ghost of the past, forcing its way into the present. The irony is that these white bros think they made something original. As Carter says, ‘These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!’ This sentiment will literally come back to haunt them.
While the appropriation of black culture by the two white bros is obvious, in this book everyone appropriates everyone else. Nigerians pretend to be Jamaican. Chinese are seen as imposters. But in particular whites are made out to cling to anything, anything at all, that will stave off their irrelevance. White guilt is played on heavily, Carter speaking ‘as if “white people” were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn’t belong.’ But Carter is a shapeshifter, cutting off his dreads and donning hipster attire. The pair of them don’t, ‘want to be mistaken for the kind of suburban white boys who post pictures of themselves holding malt liquor bottles and throwing gang signs,’ as if they only avoid the most odious, distasteful forms of appropriation. White people are made strange and alien, always apprehensive of their own past but willing to embrace the new. At one point Seth is in Carter’s sister’s (Leonie) bathroom:
‘I examined her toothbrush, the flesh-toned silk robe hanging on a hook on the door. Inside her medicine cabinet were rows of bottles, containing vitamins and esoteric supplements. She had prescriptions from a homeopath, a Chinese herbalist. Capsules of freeze-dried thymus gland extract, “fortified with herb activators and naturopathically prepared nutrients for synergistic effect.” Something called turquoise aromatherapy color energy blend. A cabinet full of charms to ward off death. I tried to imagine how she must feel to herself as she stood naked in that marble-tiled bathroom, swallowing pills. Hearing death come creeping in, slinking round her ankles like a cat.’
The strangeness of white people is explicitly drawn, the point apparently to make their stealing of culture all the more heinous. But Hari just isn’t subtle and his philosophy is far too blatant. The story itself suffers, as the entertaining first half devolves into a loquacious second half. As the ghosts of the past catch up with Seth things get stranger and stranger, and the book turns into a revenge fantasy. Carter is basically killed by hoods; Seth suffers a slow breakdown. At one point Leonie is killed in a motel room and Seth is blamed. He’s treated poorly by the cops (‘There is a knee on my neck. I can’t breathe, I say.’). Leonie’s family reduces him to the life of a vagabond, taking his musical IP and paying him off to keep silent. After committing a later crime Seth says, ‘If I’d been black they probably would have shot me, just put me down right there and then. Instead they hung a coat round my shoulders as they led me to the car.’ This kind of commentary is far too obvious, Hari inserting real life cases as if it’s the most clever thing in the world. The ambiguous, metaphor-riven beginning becomes a full-blown, hyperbolic attack.
The problem is that the racial commentary doesn’t feel authentic. Where last years Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout, managed to explore black identity with satire, White Tears is cloyingly unfunny. The Sellout was witty and bombastic with its humour, but White Tears is ironically ironic, too lazy and/or serious to attempt a punchline, dropping lines like ‘check your privilege’ and ‘safe space’ almost as an afterthought. Perhaps it has everything to do with the author, and Hari is merely trying to tell another person’s story without having experienced it. His novel is certainly not humble in its appropriation: there are big historical repercussions at work here. Namely the history of slavery and incarceration suddenly becomes intertwined as we discover that Carter’s family built their wealth on the backs of prison labour. Past and present are one when it comes to racial prejudices. The way in which these knowledge bombs are dropped is another clue to the mindset. But it isn’t the racial message alone that is overdone.
There is a certain conceited attitude that plays through the babble of the book, and it’s more than only the white male protagonist. Hari has a lot to say, or more, wants to appear to have a lot to say. Music is the other big theme aside from race, given it is the plot driver and intrinsically linked to black history. However, often the segments about music are a series of namedrops, whether musicians or processes. I know little about music, but I’m also not the only one to note that it feels fake. Much like the protagonists Hari seems to revere music, but not really get it. Indeed the substance of white irrelevance he portrays comes through when, to begin with, Seth only listens to electronic beats. ‘Here was a shiny sound-world made of pure electronic tones, in which I could float free of all context, cocooned in the reassurance that yesterday was long gone, or perhaps never existed at all.’ The progressive mindset in one line. Context is a hindrance and only the future matters, but without context Seth can’t appreciate older music, is frightened by it. Even the kings of electronica are mostly white, so he is trapped between an invisible previous glory and the artless present of whiteness. However, Carter becomes the catalyst for conversion. Seth is scared of his musical past, and the only history he is eventually willing to explore is the truth of the black experience. The theme of the entire book can be summed up in this one paragraph:
‘Over the next weeks and months, Carter taught me to worship — it’s not too strong a word — what he worshipped. He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.’
Appropriation and authenticity. Ironic because the book depends on the former and lacks the latter. There are long tracts of musical metaphors, in particular related to time, that end up dulling the senses. ‘The present is dry, but add reverb and you can hear time reverse its flow, slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster.’ No one thinks or speaks like this, just authors given to self-indulgence. The thing is though that the reader never really learns much, just succumbs to the drone of jargon.
Hari also has a religious attitude to play out. A disbeliever himself, the character of Seth almost becomes godlike, his past, present and future rolling into one like a timeless creator, his observations omniscient as he scouts the streets for sound. Seth feels time disappear (and the book annoyingly adds to this sensation with sudden switches back in history), becoming the centre of his own universe. But it is a contemptuous portrayal of fallen gods. Religion is crumbling, Seth at one stage noting, ‘We (I had fallen into saying “we”) had rented a loft in Greenpoint, in a building that had once been a Catholic church.’ The white gods no longer rule, just the spirit of blues. Speaking of the supernatural, Hari has admitted to believing in UFOs. A coincidence? As the book shows with Carter’s transcendental obsession with old records, without faith in God people will gravitate to new spiritual experiences, whether that is aliens or old records.
The culmination of the book is when Seth’s body is taken over by the ghost of Charlie Shaw, the original creator of the supposed fake track Seth and Carter made. White tears flow when what was thought to be good old fashioned capitalism comes back to attack in the form of racial revenge. Time is a soundtrack on loop, and so we are always guilty for the sins of our ancestors. On reflection the book is less a record with A/B sides, and more a mixtape of ideologies, fantasy and verbosity that never becomes cohesive. For a book about authenticity, it tries too hard. For a message about originality and roots, the setup and characters are derivative. Even its attempt at pushing buttons falls flat, with its title and constant jibes at white people coming across as indolent. There are plenty of racial issues to address, but they should be explored with verve. This is less story and more diatribe.