In ‘White Tears,’ a sound-tech geek looks for hidden noise

Hari Kunzru’s novel — half social critique, half ghost story — features a narrator who records everything he encounters.

“White Tears”

by Hari Kunzru

Knopf, 270 pp., $26.95

Half social critique and half ghost story, Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears” is an odd bird of a novel.

It starts out as a wily study of two white friends from different class backgrounds who share an obsession: sound recording and record collecting, with a focus on old blues numbers. It then plunges into a reality-subverting world where race and identity become nightmarishly interchangeable.

Kunzru’s narrator, Seth, is a sound-technology geek always on the lookout for “a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds I could hear without trying.” He likes to roam New York City, recording everything he encounters. One day he picks up a line sung by an anonymous blues singer in Washington Square. When he gets home, the line has mysteriously become a whole song.

Author appearance

Hari Kunzru

The author of “White Tears” will appear at 7 p.m. April 13 at Elliott Bay Book Co. (elliottbaybooks.com or (206-624-6600).

His roommate/collaborator, Carter Wallace, wild with enthusiasm over Seth’s find, pairs a guitar track with it, then disseminates the song on the internet, claiming it’s by a lost legend named Charlie Shaw. Record collectors frenziedly respond, including one who goes by the tag JumpJim.

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“Before you posted that song,” JumpJim writes, “I had not heard Charlie Shaw since 1959.”

He’s eager to buy the 78 he thinks they have in their possession. They agree to meet him.

Meanwhile, Carter and Seth are on a roll as record producers, but they need someone to invest in their business. They turn to Carter’s family, owners of the Wallace Magnolia Group, “a behemoth with tentacles in construction, logistics and energy.” Wallace business is booming, thanks to post-9/11 war-zone contract work. The family is also in the prisons-for-profit trade.

Carter’s brother Cornelius, who holds the family purse strings, is skeptical about Seth and Carter’s recording projects. Carter’s sister Leonie, a would-be artist herself, is ambivalent. Both siblings suspect Seth is mooching off Carter rather than bringing anything of value to the partnership.

Two incidents send Seth spinning into left field.

The first: After Carter is beaten into a coma while on unexplained business in the Bronx, the Wallaces deny Seth access to his and Carter’s recording studio. That leaves Seth shut out of his own life.

The second: When Seth, meeting JumpJim, confesses the Charlie Shaw business was a hoax, he’s told he’s mistaken. Charlie Shaw is real, JumpJim says, and Charlie Shaw has an agenda.

JumpJim then recounts his search for Charlie Shaw with a fellow blues fanatic in 1950s Mississippi, and Seth and Leonie soon head South to try to confirm JumpJim’s…

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