This year is the 100th anniversary of the first jazz recording — the 1917 Original Dixieland “Jass” Band’s “Livery Stable Blues.” The five white musicians from New Orleans soon changed their band name from “Jass” to Jazz. “Livery Stable Blues” sold more than a million copies. The jazz style was appropriated and elaborated by countless bands in the United States and Europe, many, if not most of them, as white as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band members. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, many tunes like “Livery Stable Blues” had been long familiar to the black musicians who invented jazz by blending ragtime sounds with looser 12-bar blues, the kind of blues that were passed around and reinvented, but rarely written down.

(Knopf)

Hari Kunzru’s captivating “White Tears” starts off as a straightforward contemporary story about two young men obsessed with collecting obscure blues recordings of the 1920s. Careless trustafarian Carter (possessor of blond dreadlocks, a braided beard, tattoos, the best drugs, the best audio equipment and the best collection of records) lives off the money dispensed to him by his rich patrician family, whose business empire includes construction, energy and a global private prison conglomerate.

Seth, the novel’s nerdy narrator, has become Carter’s friend and apprentice, absorbing not only his abundant knowledge, but also his passion as he joins Carter on his feverish pursuit of the rarest old blues records, the ones that may only exist as rumors. In marathon listening sessions, Seth recalls, “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.”

They set up a recording studio together, financed by Carter and managed by Seth. They are “audio craftsmen, artisans of analog,” whose skill at creating a unique and authentic resonance has brought them to the verge of fame.

Seth spent time as a depressed teenager recording his own breathing while obsessively listening for “a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds I could hear without trying. . . . I began to hear the past, the ambience of the room as it had been ten years previously, then twenty years, then fifty.” Though Seth’s present-day account is apparently lucid, this listening for the past is a herald of the true nature of his story.

Seth has made a recording in Washington Square Park near some chess players, eavesdropping as usual with his parabolic mic and recorder. Though he never saw or heard any music other than a busker under the arch “ineptly singing Dylan,” in the playback he hears a mesmerizing voice (one of the chess players?) singing an unfamiliar blues tune:

Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own

Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own

Put my enemies all down in the ground

Put me under a man they call Captain Jack

Put me under a man they call Captain Jack

Wrote his name all down my back

“We stayed up until six in the morning, cleaning up the recording and deciphering the words. . . . You abstract the sound into shapes, start selecting, magnifying.” Though Carter calls the recording beautiful and incredible, Seth considers deleting the sound file. “He was right, but all the same as I worked I had an instinct to cover my ears, to unhear what I was hearing.”

Author Hari Kunzru (Clayton Cubitt)

Carter creates a guitar track to go under the mysterious vocal, and then he begs Seth to use his sound engineering genius to “Make it dirty. Drown it in hiss. I want it to sound like a record that’s been sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years.” Carter creates a “scuffed and faded” counterfeit label for a 1928 “Key & Gate” recording of what he decides to call “Charlie Shaw Graveyard Blues,” and then he uploads it to the Internet. The world of blues collectors goes wild. Then someone calling himself JumpJim demands to know what’s on the other side of this rare record. He has not heard Charlie Shaw, he says, since 1959.

Have they merely faked an old recording, or did these two naive aficionados somehow turn the key in the lock that released a restive ghost? After Carter is harmed under mysterious circumstances, the novel rapidly shifts into a vivid and often hallucinatory series of events as Seth, now banished by the imperious Wallace family, follows Carter’s trail in search of the real Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru’s graceful writing is exquisitely attuned to his material. Seth’s integrity as a narrator is so convincing that at first the frequent jumps into an uncannily familiar past feel like a counterpoint melody that will resolve by the last page. But it’s neither a clever “Time and Again” story of time travel nor a tricky “Westworld” sort of past-present parallel. “White Tears” is a profoundly darker and more complex story of a haunting that elucidates the iniquitous history of white appropriation of black culture. Is Seth transformed, or is Seth revealed? Who is the pursuer, and who is the pursued? “What is the connection between the listener and the musician? Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead? And which is which?”

“White Tears” has a devastatingly hard landing; there are, indeed, some resolving chords that bring us back to Seth’s words in the first pages of the novel: “The present is dry, but add reverb and you can hear time reverse its flow, slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster.”

Katharine Weber, the author of five novels and a memoir, is the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College. She manages the musical legacy of her grandmother, composer Kay Swift.

White Tears

By Hari Kunzru

Knopf. 271 pp. $26.95