Any novel set in the music biz rightly aspires to stereophonic meaning, but the reverberations of Hari Kunzru‘s White Tears echo long after it’s done. Part ghost story, part travelogue, White Tears is a drugged-out, spoiled-rotten treatise on race, class and poverty of the soul.
Kunzru, the author of four previous novels, has nailed a specifically American style of bourgeois appropriation through his main characters, Seth and Carter, 20-something white guys whose friendship is staked on a fetish for music. Carter is the alpha by virtue of his bank account — richer than Croesus but mortified about it. Seth, the sidekick and narrator, becomes consumed by the fallout of their forged recording of an invented black musician.
These kids are stupidly privileged, and they are not all right: even before they were born, they were complicit in sins of the past. White Tears time-bends through Jim Crow-era Mississippi and riverbank chain gangs, around characters who are owed personal reparations for not only the fake (or is it real?) recording but for other past wrongs. “History is literally present in all that we do,” wrote James Baldwin, whose traces are here in Kunzru’s pages. Crackling literary allusion is spliced throughout White Tears, slyly evoking works by Thomas Mann (Carter’s decidedly Aryan, vaguely incestuous family), Ralph Ellison (Seth’s persistent inability to make others notice him becomes an actual shift in skin color) and others.
For all that and then some, White Tears is a book that everyone should be reading right now. Near the end, Seth passively absorbs cable-news coverage of a police shooting — “Why would they kill him … His hands were up” — and an idea Kunzru floats chapters before booms back: radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi’s theory that sound never dies. We are always, all of us, living with the past.
This appears in the March 27, 2017 issue of TIME.