The Many Shapes of Music in Fiction, from Kunzru to Murakami

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Music can be a lifeline. “Her life was saved by rock and roll,” Lou Reed sang on one of the Velvet Underground’s most beloved songs. It can also help people figure out who they are, lead people to a community, and answer questions of identity. And that’s a good and righteous thing. But sometimes, a narrative will come along and turn that property of music on its head. What if a musical obsession was ruinous rather than redemptive? (Avant-garde guitarist John Fahey famously titled his memoir How Bluegrass Music Ruined My Life.) What if someone’s musical obsession separated them from the rest of society, rather than helping them discover a subculture? What if the frequency on your radio was playing to an audience of one?

This idea of musical fascinations gone wrong can take a number of forms. There’s the pop-cultural figure of a record collector as depressive outsider — Steve Buscemi’s character in the film adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, for instance. The characters in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram use pop music for magic — but few of them lead enviable lives. This can show up in nonfiction as well: Amanda Petrusich’s fantastic Do Not Sell At Any Price chronicles communities of 78 rpm record collectors, and the bizarre feuds and obsessions that can emerge from it. At one point, Petrusich takes up diving in order to search a river bed for potentially discarded records; she’s gone from a writer documenting a subculture to a participant in it.

There are quite a few moments in Hari Kunzru’s new novel White Tears where Petrusich’s book comes to mind. (She’s thanked in the acknowledgements). In particular, a subplot set in mid-20th century New York about an earlier generation of 78 collectors brings to mind the personalities, dynamics, and collecting practices described in Do Not Sell At Any Price. But in Kunzru’s novel, the obsessions of these collectors ventures into stranger territory, as the protagonist of his novel goes in search of the origins of a song that may have spontaneously entered into existence.

Seth, the narrator of White Tears, is one-half of a music production team based in Brooklyn. The other half is Carter, born into an affluent family and possessing a fondness for decades-old forms of music (“All postwar music had vanished from his life,” Seth observes about Carter at one point). One day, while wandering through the city, Seth records a voice singing a timeless song with haunting lyrics; later, Carter records music for it, and they join the recordings together to create what seems like a perfect facsimile of an obscure blues song from the 1920s. And then, someone online claims to recognize the song, which seems to have had a life of its own long before it was assembled in the studio.

And then things get very, very strange. Time behaves strangely. Identities blur, and power dynamics shift and shift and shift. In the midst of a haunting narrative, Kunzru has plenty to say: about race and power and history; about appropriation; and about people who embrace and fetishize the work of musicians who lived and died in obscurity, but don’t care one iota for the musicians striving to make a living in the present day. “You hate the real music, the music that was actually happening, because you’re so hung up on what you like to call the authentic,” one character tells Seth late in the book.

There have been a handful of other novels that have also explored this phenomenon — of music that never was, or that exists in some liminal state between existence and the aether — as well as the people who seek it out. Lewis Shiner’s novel Glimpses takes as its subject a man who develops the ability to alter musical history, and who returns from trips into the past with music that should not exist. Steve Erickson’s recent Shadowbahn ventures into similar territory: parts of the novel are set in a timeline in which Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin Jesse survived and he did not, and thus rock history took a number of different turns over the ensuing decades. In these novels, too, the paths down which musical obsessives tread leads to their isolation within society, sometimes to disastrous ends.

One of Kunzru’s towering achievements in White Tears is how he both captures the gritty details of musical obsessives and creates a plausible song that never was. He both illustrates the thrill that can come from musical creation (and of finding something that resonates), and of the societal and emotional cost that can accompany that. In his 1992 novel (translated by Philip Gabriel) South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami focuses on musical obsessives on the other side of the globe, but also zeroes in on how dedication to music beyond a certain point can become ruinous.

Early in the novel, narrator Hajime recalls his youth, when he spent a lot of time with a girl named Shimamoto. His descriptions of them listening to her father’s record collection are lyrical in their precision:

“Shimamoto was in charge of the records. She’d take one from its jacket, place it carefully on the turntable without touching the grooves with her fingers, and, after making sure to brush the cartridge free of any dust with a tiny brush, lower the needle ever so gently onto the record. When the record was finished, she’d spray it and wipe it with a vinyl cloth. Finally she’d return the record to its jacket and its proper place on the shelf.”

Later in life, Hajime’s fondness for music takes him down a different route: after marrying a woman named Yukiko, he ends up operating “an upscale jazz bar in the basement of a brand-new building in Aoyama,” which turns out to be thoroughly successful; a second club soon follows, as does his entry into the world of parenting. It’s an enviable life — and then Hajime reconnects with Shimamoto, and the world in which he lives.

As with the characters in Kunzru’s novel, musical obsession sends Hajime into a space where things that were previously certain and solid ebb into a much more surreal state. There are hints of something ominous happening behind the scenes, a sense of forces beyond Hajime’s comprehension that echo the larger disquiet that he’s felt throughout his life. Music remains a touchstone, both something that Hajime and Shimamoto share and something that serves as a constant descriptor for different aspects of his life.

Perhaps that ambiguity is something that comes with the territory of writing about musical enthusiasts. Both Kunzru and Murakami recognize the power that the right song can have over someone — but they also note the way in which music itself is open to multiple interpretations and exists in a space where certainty is hard to come by. That each has been able to channel that while also conveying a surreal sense of menace is no small accomplishment. Neither is chronicling those moments where passions become obsessions and obsessions curdle into something worse. These are haunting books for anyone who’s ever become fascinated by notes and chords.