Orfeo by Richard Powers

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Orfeo by Richard Powers

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A retired composer and amateur biochemist finds himself fleeing the police in small-town America. A highly cerebral satire on the surveillance society, yet still witty and full of heart. Strongly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781782391616

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'No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden…people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement.'

Seventy-year-old Peter Els is an out-of-work composer in Pennsylvania. He teaches music appreciation at a senior centre, but much of his spare time is devoted to chemistry experiments. As a college student he agonised over the choice between chemistry and music, in fact, and these days he wonders if he got it wrong. His avant-garde compositions, such as a three-hour opera based on medieval German history, were infrequent and never very well received. Should he have gone into biochemistry after all? Thus, thanks to a few thousand dollars' worth of semi-professional equipment purchased off the Internet, Els is now engaged in a new kind of composition – with bacterial DNA taking the place of musical notes.

On the night the novel opens, however, Els makes a mistake. His beloved golden retriever, Fidelio, is dying, and he can only think to summon the police. When two officers arrive, they take in the fact of the dead dog wrapped in a quilt, but their real interest is in the genetic modification going on in this amateur's lab. Powers employs the precise language of musical notation to give weight to what is suddenly set in motion: 'For half a measure, as the officers headed down the sidewalk, there came a softness bordering on peace. The dark calm lasted all the way to the car, where the pair at once began placing calls.'

Like the antihero of cult television hit Breaking Bad, this average American soon becomes caught up in something much larger than himself. Nine hospital patients in Alabama have died, infected by the same strain of bacteria Els was manipulating. Even though this has nothing to do with him, it is evident that the media and the government mean to make a scapegoat of him, 'the so-called Biohacker Bach'. So Els goes on the run: off on a tragicomic road trip to revisit his ex-wife, his former musical collaborator, and his estranged daughter.

As Els journeys across the country, he also travels back into his past, recalling what music has meant to him – from his first nervous clarinet performance as a boy to the ecstasy of his first major postgraduate opus, with his wife singing soprano; from Gustav Mahler to Anthrax. 'Music forecasts the past, recalls the future,' Powers asserts in a strange oxymoron. Incessant flashbacks turn Els's life into a disorienting continuum, with music as the one constant.

Music provides not just the novel's content but also its symbolic language. Powers carefully links music and chemistry through his metaphors; for instance, 'Four billion years of chance had written a score of inconceivable intricacy into every living cell…The formulas of physical chemistry struck [Els] as intricate and divine compositions.' One might assume that music is a subjective experience almost impossible to convey through words, but Powers's lyrical language achieves that goal with remarkable success, as in 'Oboe and horn trace out their parallel privacies. The thin sinews wander, an edgy duet built up from bare fourths and fifths.'

I must admit, however, that at times the novel is a bit too abstract for me. For someone without specialist knowledge, it can be difficult to follow Powers down these esoteric musical pathways. Occasionally I felt I completely lost the thread for a few pages; I could not hear the music in my head, and the descriptions only frustrated me. Still, I have great admiration for Powers's clever writing, even if in the end I prefer the simplicity of Els's contemporary, Twitter-documented odyssey to his nostalgia for past musical compositions.

Several of Powers's ten previous novels share this one's preoccupations with music and science. Orfeo appears to be set in 2011, and it is a timely commentary on the anti-terrorism paranoia that persists even in Obama's America. There is something Kafkaesque about the absurdity of Els's predicament; indeed, '[Els] had the distinct impression of having disappeared into one of those Central European allegorical novels'. Like a Kafka work, Orfeo treads a fine line between humour and threat: 'Once…Els had believed that music could save a person's life. He could think of nothing now but all the ways it might get a person killed.'

The Greek myth of Orpheus is, of course, a necessary point of reference for understanding Orfeo. Orpheus was a divinely gifted musician and prophet who attempted to retrieve his wife (Eurydice) from the underworld and was ultimately murdered by those who did not understand his music. The parallels with Els's trajectory are clear – and worrying. Indeed, the novel's inconclusive ending left me troubled, despite Els's comforting maxim that 'even the least threatening tune will outlast you by generations. There's pleasure in knowing that, too.'

Further reading suggestion: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt is another brilliant recent novel about art in a compromised America. Explore the enduring legend that inspired Powers with Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe.

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Buy Orfeo by Richard Powers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Orfeo by Richard Powers at Amazon.com.


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