I was introduced to British born New York resident Kunzru via his 2004 novel “Transmission” which I loved. That was a laugh-out-loud work with good line after good line and probably the funniest novel about a computer virus that you could ever imagine reading. Excited by what I believed to be a major talent I went back to his 2002 debut “The Impressionist” which did not impress me as much. I felt it ran out of steam and it was written largely in the present tense, which does not always work for me. When I heard his latest was about record-buying obsessives I was very keen to find out more.
Seth meets rich boy Carter Wallace, a record collector prepared to splash the cash if he feels the music is authentic. Seth, an audiophile himself, who records his day to day movements in the streets, becomes drawn into this obsession as it begins to be dominated by old shellac 78 rpm Blues records. This becomes one record in particular, “Graveyard Blues” by Charlie Shaw- a record so steeped in authenticity that no-one is sure that it ever even existed. This hunt for Shaw becomes part crime story, part ghost story, part road story and part love story all infused (for the first half at least) with the wry humour that made “Transmission” so enjoyable.
And then, about two thirds of the way through the whole thing begins to unravel. Has obsession turned to madness or is something more supernatural on the loose? Is this recompense for white men dabbling in Black American culture in order to manipulate, exploit, possess and obsess? Sometimes, when a gear is changed and the author appears to veer off in a different direction it can prove exhilarating for the reader but at other times it can feel as if we have been left behind. And on this occasion, unfortunately, I did feel Hari Kunzru did leave me behind and I didn’t really get what was going on. The whole thing begins to feel feverish and we seem to be presented with alternate endings as what was going on felt blurred. It reminded me in the way this made me feel, rather than the size and scale of 2015’s “City On Fire” by Garth Risk Hallberg, which I also had reservations about. Ultimately, my very high hopes were a little disappointed. Perhaps I was too consciously looking for more of what I got from “Transmission” but here I didn’t quite find it.
White Tears was published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton on April 6th 2017. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.