When Seth meets Carter at high school he is surprised that this wealthy, cool student pays him any attention. Their friendship is based around a mutual love of music, the blues being Carter’s particular passion. He refuses to listen to anything by white artists, believing it is never as genuine. On leaving college they move to New York and set up a recording studio where they use samples from old records to make new recordings sound aged, yet Carter still maintains this obsession with the genuine and authentic. On one of Seth’s recording trips around the city he picks up a few lines of a song. Carter becomes obsessed and they create a record, releasing it online as though it were a long lost track by Charlie Shaw, an artist they believe they have created. Among the plethora of responses is JumpJim, an old collector who warns them off getting involved in this world. The narrative begins to dissolve from this point, telling JumpJim’s tale alongside Seth’s, whose narrative eventually becomes inextricably entangled with Charlie Shaw’s.
Carter and his sister Leonie attempt to separate themselves from their famous family name, and the way in which the Wallace fortune was made. Carter is deeply involved in the cultural appropriation of the blues, and Leonie decorates her apartment to look like that of a struggling artist. She expresses multiple times that everyone always wants something from them and that nobody will take her art seriously because they’re too busy trying to sell her something. Their desire to create a visage of something that they are not while nonetheless being happy to live off the family fortune leads them to danger.
Seth has no wealth of his own, although it is his skill that allows their company to work, and is heavily reliant on Carter to provide, something that the Wallace’s fail to understand. He admits to having had some kind of episode in his youth, and much of the latter sections of the novel feel as though he is having a breakdown as he desperately tries to escape the ghost of Charlie Shaw. He is used as a vehicle to demonstrate the inherent racism in American society, that the systems are designed to perpetuate oppression. His treatment by the police is shocking and the flashbacks show how even after slavery was abolished the justice system was rigged to force the poor into hard labour.
Seth wanders the final chapters as a ghostly figure trying to remain invisible to stay out of trouble. His comment ‘when you are powerless, something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened’ is a poignant comment not only on the immediate aftermath of events but the way in which history is written with the absence of many voices. In an interview, Kunzru commented that with Trump in power in America these discriminations are losing the veneer of civility that has so long obscured them.
A powerful, difficult, and important read that will inspire a sense of outrage.