White Tears
  • March 9, 2018

    Opening Round

  • Hari Kunzru

    2White Tears
    3The Idiot

    Elif Batuman

  • Judged by

    Ismail Muhammad

The Idiot

This matchup isn’t fair. If, at the beginning of 2017, a writer had issued me a survey asking what I wanted from a novel that year, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears is the book that would result. It’s a social critique wrapped in a ghost story cloaked in a mystery thriller, a clever indictment of white Americans’ exploitative relationship to black American culture that uses genre fiction conventions to dazzling effect. Along the way, the novel takes the time to explore how tightly white American wealth is bound up with histories of oppression and exploitation. It tackles injustices big and small: the prison industrial complex, the cult of black authenticity, disaster tourism, white people who wear dreadlocks or pretend at being Rastas. White Tears didn’t have to do much to win my attention and affection.

Ismail Muhammad is a writer and critic living in Oakland, where he’s a staff writer for The Millions and contributing editor at ZYZZYVA. His writing has appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New Republic, and other publications. He’s currently working on a novel about the Great Migration and queer archives of black history. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

White Tears tells the story of two white hipsters—the mentally ill, poor protagonist Seth and his rich friend Carter Wallace—who listen obsessively to black music because, according to them, it’s more “intense and authentic than anything made by white people.” They sneer at the middle-class jocks and Christians who constitute the black population at their college for being insufficiently authentic; what kind of black kid does a business degree? Eventually they garner fame as producers who excel at replicating the sounds of black music through the decades, from blues to Motown, applying it to white musicians’ music like coal to a minstrel performer’s face.

But there’s a nagging problem: “We worshipped [black music] but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge,” Seth admits early in the novel. To that end, they engage in the old white hipster practice of record collecting, a dubious hobby wrapped up in a history of black exploitation. If they can’t possess blackness as a cultural inheritance, at least they own it as a series of rare commodities. But when they attempt to construct an “authentic” blues record around a mysterious snippet Seth overhears in Washington Square Park, a sinister force attaches itself to them—and it wants vengeance. They learn that their obsession with black culture comes at a price.

I’m a PhD candidate studying African-American literature, someone who’s willingly given six years of my life over to questions of racial identity and cultural inheritance. Kind of like Seth, I’m an obsessive, and White Tears is tailored toward readers like me, who get giddy when substantial explorations of race and racism are folded into intricate narratives. However, while such books can be riveting, even beautiful (Beloved), they aren’t always fun. (Whenever other readers tell me how much “fun” they had reading the virtuosic horror show that is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, I can’t help but look at them like they’re crazy.) Probably the most impressive thing about White Tears is how it uses genre fiction to create narrative momentum and excitement in what could otherwise be a bleak story of retribution. Its opening pages proceed briskly, establishing a mystery that unfolds at a satisfying clip. The novel uses ghost story and mystery thriller conventions to create a haunting, fragmented tale of white America’s indebtedness to forgotten and exploited black artists. It eschews conventional narrative in favor of unannounced perspective changes, rapid tense shifts, and temporalities that overlap in dizzying fashion. These tricks emphasize the past’s grip on the present, and foreclose a future until white people settle up their debts. But the book is also funny. Its title is a riff on a meme about white fragility in the face of history’s weight; a Macklemore-esque rapper makes an appearance, touting a tribute album to black music through the decades titled “My Past Lives”; when Seth’s debts are finally called in, he responds like a Twitter parody of a clueless white liberal: “It’s not fair to blame me for things that took place long before I was even born … what about my rights?”

Like I said, I should have loved this book. But here’s the thing: I feel like its emphasis on narrative momentum comes at the expense of any substantial engagement with race and the question of cultural appropriation. I’m not sure the novel has anything to say about appropriation more complex than “cultural appropriation is bad.” Meanwhile, I could see the plot’s twists coming early enough that once the big reveal finally came, I was left thinking “Well, duh.”

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Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is also about obsession, though of a different sort. After entering her freshman year at Harvard in 1995, the Turkish-American protagonist Selin finds herself in love: with languages, with knowledge, and most of all with an inscrutable Hungarian college senior named Ivan. Their in-person interactions are impoverished, to say the least; they communicate almost exclusively via email, which was just entering mass use in 1995. They treat it like a form of letter writing, exchanging the kinds of up-at-3 a.m. thoughts that seem revelatory in college but are cringeworthy in retrospect. An example, from Ivan:

I understand maybe one-third of what you write, and probably vice versa. On the other hand, from the third that I do understand, I get more of You than I could ever get from anything down-to-earth and crystal-clear, like an explanation or an essay. Whatever you write with so much care and intensity has an image of You in it. That’s why I fear the triviality of conversations.


Despite such pretensions, Selin is preoccupied with Ivan. When he travels to California, she tracks his movements by figuring out which university server he’s using. When he announces his intention to travel in Hungary over the summer and suggests that Selin apply to a job teaching English in a Hungarian village, she agrees. When he writes to her, she parses every word as an academic might parse poetry, assigning him the same significance as a Neruda poem.

Selin’s crush is often hilarious. She can be miserably helpless. Before going swimming at Walden Pond with Ivan, she accompanies him while he banters with his girlfriend, subjecting herself to unnecessary emotional torture. Unable to utter a word to a passing acquaintance who greets her on the street, she simply turns away from him and flees the scene. Panicking at a Hungarian woman offering her a hat, all she can do is scream “I DON’T NEED A HAT” in useless Russian. But the novel doesn’t present Selin’s situation as farce. Instead, The Idiot errs on the side of droll observation and ironic juxtaposition; it is gentle when it wants to be, and cutting when necessary. Most of all, Selin’s situation rings true. She’s sick in love, and as someone who’s been sick in love a few times, I recognized something of myself in her irrational attraction. There’s no rationality to be had in such a situation, just a restless and ineffective grasping at what you can’t have. Your mind compulsively interprets, finding meaning in a web of relations that may or may not exist. Early in her relationship with Ivan, Selin marvels at how all-consuming and obsessive her desire is: “I began to feel that I was living two lives: one consisting of emails with Ivan, the other consisting of school.” The internet becomes a metaphor for how desire can usher you into an enchanted world sealed off from the quotidian. The book does such a good job of evoking this state of enchantment that I felt cast back into all my own romantic obsessions. Every detail of Selin’s obsession set off pangs of recognition.

I probably found The Idiot so intensely relatable because it’s a book that is willing to risk being boring. It might be funny, but unlike White Tears, it’s not always fun. Rather, it’s often dull if not outright tedious; its plot tends to be faint at best. Reading it, I’d find myself pausing every 60 pages, wondering why Selin was recounting the details of a shopping trip with a fellow student from Russian class, or a seemingly random exchange with a roommate, when any given episode was of no narrative consequence, good for nothing beyond a few gnomic observations. White Tears is a thriller with a message, a book that moves so quickly and covers so much historical ground that it can only represent its world through a vague and hasty sketch. Opting for a sharply observed social comedy whose clearest precedent is the Victorian novel, The Idiot wants to represent its time, place, and people in as much detail as possible, no matter how minute any given aspect might be. That means it often wades into tedium—all the better to represent the romantic obsession’s disconcerting rhythms, wherein moments of blissful intimacy (or at least its promise) puncture long stretches of mundane non sequiturs, only to recede back into obscurity. To me, The Idiot isn’t just about enchantment; the book itself feels enchanted.

In the end, The Idiot is a novel about human relations: how we relate to one another, the pitfalls of trying to relate, and whether we can relate at all. Like Selin says about email, this is a book that wants to be about “the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives.” Normally, I’d throw a book that announced that goal across the room; The Idiot has such intense attention to detail and such lovingly crafted characters that I buy it. This is a huge contrast to White Tears, which trades in caricatures of clueless, careless white people rather than characters. Seth, our narrator, is a hapless cipher whom I found myself disdaining rather than sympathizing with. He’s only of interest as a vehicle for the novel’s ideas. Living in his mind for nearly 300 pages took endurance, and the pleasure of retribution wanes around the twelfth time he proclaims his ignorant innocence. White Tears is certainly more fun than The Idiot, but not nearly as moving.

Selin’s experience of first love raises questions about the struggle to know or understand anyone outside of ourselves, to communicate in a way that feels tangible and durable. Unlike White Tears, though, The Idiot doesn’t grandly announce its intentions. Its subtle layering, a stacking of observations, anecdotes, and incidents, gently evoke its themes. In one moment, a woman whom Selin tutors in algebra demands that Selin explain “the Other” to her. She means “order”, as in “descending order,” but her confusion is a hilarious invitation to interpret along with Selin as she ransacks her mind for clues as to how she might understand the Other. The Idiot is not always “fun”; it’s often dull, sometimes outright tedious. But I genuinely wanted to join Selin as she grasped for a loved one to break up that tedium. It felt—well, authentic.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Laura Cogan & Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin: Hi, everyone. For this year’s ToB, on Kevin and John’s off days, we’ve invited some folks from our favorite literary websites (and beyond) to join us in the commentary booth. Beginning today with Laura Cogan, editor of the venerable ZYZZYVA, one of our most-loved literary journals for a long time running.

Laura Cogan is the editor of ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco-based literary magazine.

Laura, can you describe ZYZZYVA and your work a little bit? On top of that, how would you characterize yourself as a reader?

Laura Cogan: Like you said, I’m the editor of ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco-based literary journal. We publish stories, essays, and poetry by contemporary writers—and we publish art in each issue, too. The journal has been in print since 1985, and has a history of seeking out and championing writers in the early stages of their careers—as well as providing a place for established authors to try new forms and share new material with readers.

So while I spend a great deal of time reading shorter prose for work, it’s a treat to dive into novel-length fiction in my leisure reading (and novellas! I love novellas). I’d say I’m a fairly adventurous reader of fiction. I like to be challenged (by subject matter, style, form), and I tend to give a book room for imperfections (slow passages, dropped threads, etc.). I think the novel is a more forgiving form in those regards than short fiction or poetry, for example. That said, I do relish fiction that is consistently well-crafted on the sentence level. I’m most drawn to fiction that dives into the essential questions: What does it mean to be alive, to be human? How do we (mis)understand the past, how do we imagine the future? How should we live? How can we connect with our fellow animals on this heartbreaking, beautiful, and mysterious adventure of being alive? There are near-infinite jumping off places to ask those questions.

Rosecrans: Let me start with a simple one: What do you think of the judgment? You know the judge personally, yes?

Laura: Judge Muhammad is a contributing editor at ZYZZYVA, so I’ve had the pleasure of more than a couple conversations about books with him—and one of the things I most value about his perspective is that he is unfailingly both demanding and generous. And I think that’s exactly what we see in this judgment: a genuine generosity of spirit toward both books, alongside a frank critique.

I was curious not only to see how Judge Muhammad would rule on this ungainly matchup, but, even more so, why. And I found much of his reasoning compelling. Let me say outright: I would not have wanted to choose between these two, and I can well imagine a passionate case being made in the other direction—in part because of the timeliness and urgency of White Tears, and in part because I’m sure The Idiot will simply not work for some readers.

What did you think of the judgment? Do you think this decision will surprise readers?

Rosecrans: I really liked it, I found it personal and compelling. Muhammad makes several points about noticing characters’ preoccupations and features—something that always factors into my reading. Because either they work and seem natural and interesting, or they come across as accessories purchased at CharacterMart (or inconsequential barking dogs) E.g., here’s Kerry, a slender, self-deceiving Tesla saleswoman equipped with a pot addiction and a snake collection! Here’s Ken, a masochistic nursery school teacher with 11 toes, who impersonates Moby on Raya for a hobby! Whereas good characters, like ones Judge Muhammad found in these books, are more genuine.

What rang true for your own reading experience?

Laura: So much! Starting with “This matchup isn’t fair,” and concluding with the selection of The Idiot, and then several excellent points in between.

White Tears is a book that calls out to be read. It has the immediacy and the force of a story that must be heard, one that has something to teach us—and yet it manages to be entertaining along the way. It drives home an important and serious point about the present-day legacies of our shameful past by making use of the propulsive conventions of the horror genre. But the novel is especially impressive for its layered critique of white exploitation of black Americans in many guises over generations. Issues of ownership, possession, and obsession come up in several forms throughout the book—and interwoven with this motif is a suggested critique of capitalism itself. Amid all this we have some beautiful writing about the blues, about listening to music, and about how time works. There’s no question it’s gripping.

Yet for all this, I have to say I also felt a lingering hollowness at the center of the book—and I think that may be because, as Judge Muhammad writes, its characters feel like caricatures. I suppose any decision on this match would have to depend, in part, on how much a reader felt that mattered.

Rosecrans: Right. Because sometimes a caricature-character is still useful, and can lend depth in its own way, even if we don’t quite buy the humanity inside.

Laura: The Idiot tells a story that does not exactly feel urgent, that is not propulsive on a plot level, and the premise of which may even be off-putting—but it is also a deeply humane book, one which overtly resists caricatures and clichés. For my part, I found The Idiot’s fascination with narrative, language(s), and communication beautifully intense and relentless—Selin’s searching for meaning is unsentimental but earnest. Batuman lets each small incident or reference to a text or concept from class pile on top of dozens of other such references and incidents until they begin to form a structure that opens door upon door into cross-references and resonance in Selin’s own life. It’s both intellectually engaging, and, it occurs to me now—enchanting (though in a different way than I think Judge Muhammad uses the term). It’s a book about searching to construct oneself (out of language, narrative, and connection with others)—a story enchanted by language and narrative itself.

Rosecrans: But how’d you feel about that sense of tedium, as Muhammad mentioned? Those non-events and the seeming absence of consequence?

Laura: I do agree that it is slow, even tedious, at times. Probably least resonant for me in Judge Muhammad’s verdict, I’ll admit, is the line of thought around the relatability of Selin’s crush on Ivan. While I did find her lovesickness authentic, at times those interactions veered into exaggeration for me. More consistently relatable, to my reading, were her various friendships (which felt tender and real), and her interactions (mostly by phone) with her mother.

Rosecrans: As you mentioned, Judge Muhammad talks about this matchup not being “fair,” in part because of the ways the books worked or didn’t work for him in contrast to his predictions. You read a lot of fiction—does this happen to you occasionally? How important is surprise to a good reading experience?

Laura: I think outright surprise within a story generally isn’t all that important to a fulfilling reading experience, though when it happens it’s certainly fun. More important is that a novel’s developments not feel so predictable that there’s a total lack of tension.

But the issue of the expectations we bring to a text is different—and much messier. It’s often nearly impossible to come to a book without any expectations, and the more specific or deep-seated our predictions are, the less likely we are to allow ourselves to change our minds (or be surprised). Which is just one way, among many, that reading and discussing literature can challenge us: Reading and discussing literature should push us to question our assumptions, push us to be more empathetic, more flexible, more aware of our own biases, and even make us (dare we hope?) better citizens.

Rosecrans: Let’s hope. Final question: For our judge, The Idiot felt “enchanted.” When was the last time a novel gave you that feeling?

Laura: This is such a lovely question! Because while not every novel needs to enchant (and I often find myself drawn to those that strive to unsettle or distress), it really is a pleasure to immerse oneself in a book that casts a spell. One that comes to mind for me is Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. It works a different kind of magic than what I believe Judge Muhammad is referring to in The Idiot—but the lingering effect is something akin to that, I think. It’s an elegantly crafted jewelry box of a book: Nearly every line is sure-footed and masterful. It evokes an entire, vanished world and characters that have remained with me. I read it last summer over several days at the beach and savored it.

Rosecrans: It’s a happy day to find another Penelope Fitzgerald enthusiast. Laura, thank you for joining us.

Andrew Womack: Thank you Laura and Rosecrans! Before we head into the weekend, we have a special announcement. This May, we’ll be holding our first-ever nonfiction Rooster exhibition match. It’s modeled after the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, except this will be a one-month-only popup (for now). We’ll read and discuss three nonfiction titles with Sarah Hepola, author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. We already have some titles in mind, but now we’re asking for your help to suggest the nonfiction books you want us to read for this new event. Please respond in the comments below, and we’ll compile a final list to include in a poll next week. Titles should focus on narrative nonfiction, memoir, and the like, and can be anything that was published in 2017, or will be published by May 2018. Looking forward to your suggestions!

We’ll see you back again on Monday, when Ruth Curry decides between Manhattan Beach and Dear Cyborgs, and Kevin and John return to the booth. Have a good weekend, everyone.

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