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REVIEW: Orfeo by Richard Powers

September 29, 2014


THERE are two reasons why I didn’t set fire to my copy of Orfeo, Richard Powers’ latest book, which had been long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker prize. The first is an ill-considered foray in my college years into the world of genetics which gave me a basic understanding of how DNA works. The second, and perhaps more relevant, is that a close friend of mine, who is a professional pianist and has forgotten more about classical music than I will ever be able to learn, was kind enough to spend several hours of his life walking me through music theory and explaining to me the difference between a fugue and a sonata.

I have since forgotten everything he said, but at the time, both of these factoids were terribly relevant because in Orfeo, Powers — who has a history of writing immensely sweeping, philosophically taxing pieces of ekphrasis — decides to base his story on music composition and genetic manipulation. The novel opens with an introduction to Peter Els, a septuagenarian composer living in a college town in Pennsylvania. Peter, whose specialty is avant-garde music, is now a bit of a has-been. The (lack of) success of his experimental compositions left most audiences befuddled ... but even in the face of public bafflement, his commitment to abstraction (something that will, he hopes, help “break free of time and hear the future”) has continued. At the age of 70, retired and alone, his passion has evolved to include genetic sequencing, whereby he’s doing his best to splice musical patterns into the genome of bacteria.

As a medium of composition, that sounds eccentric, to put it mildly. But there is context: long before he started fiddling with gene-splicing, Els’ intense desire to create music that can transcend time — that is truly eternal — made him a mediocre husband and an even more mediocre parent. Now, terribly aware of his impending mortality as a composer, he sees DNA as “the one durable medium ... that might give any one piece a shot at surviving.” Peter sees, in the vastness of human polynucleotide sequences, potential untold symphonies that exist encoded in base-pairs. And so, he ends up in the — admittedly odd — headspace of thinking that should he figure out a way to inject some of his own inspiration into DNA, then his unheard “music” might enjoy a sort of immortality.

Fortunately for Powers’ readers, although Orfeo verges dangerously on the precipice of becoming a pure thought-experiment, there is just enough of the (seemingly) mundane to pull it back from the edge. The opening of the novel focuses on a telephone call to 911 — Els’ only companion, his dog, has just died, and academic to the core that he is, he’s not quite sure who else to call. The police officers who show up are appropriately aggravated and sympathetic in equal parts, until they notice Els’ hobby-shop of Frankenstein-esque tubing, beakers and lab equipment.

“What are all the petri dishes for?” asks one of the policemen, and with that question, all Hell breaks loose. In the age of assorted “wars” on “terror,” the paranoia of the Patriot Act, and Homeland Security surveillance, mucking about with potential agents of biological warfare is — in a best-case scenario — fairly dodgy. And when you have a socially dysfunctional idiot-savant of an academic trying to explain what he’s doing, well ... that’s pretty much a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Within a few hours of the call to 911, Els’ house is invaded and taken apart by government security agents in hazardous material suits, and Els himself hits the road, followed by (literal and metaphorical) hysteria from news channels, which promptly christen him “the Biohacker Bach.”

As Els flees across a paranoid America, Powers begins to fold other strands of narrative into the story. We find ourselves immersed in gentle drifts back to Els’ past, where we learn about his life through stories about the music that he both composed and that he loved. This is equal parts back-story and college seminar on musicology: ranging from the history of Messiaen’s creation of ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ (don’t feel bad, I only found out what that was through a flurry of tears as I called my pianist friend) in a German POW camp, to the “anarchy” of the 20th century. Powers creates a virtual symphony of music history that simultaneously reminds us all of just how intellectually astute he is ... and this would be wonderful, if only he had managed to do so by writing about something just a wee bit more accessible.

It’s odd, this erudite distance. For a book named Orfeo, and its concomitant associations with Orpheus (whose music could charm even stones), this book is anything but. Don’t get me wrong — it is stimulating, it is challenging, it is even — occasionally — engaging, but it’s not lyrical. It doesn’t sweep you away or touch you. That may be because Powers is, I suspect, too smart for his own good. He is incredible at connecting the dots between largely disparate concepts, but when it comes to creating empathetic, human characters, something goes astray. Els, like the protagonists of Powers’ other novels, fails to be engaging; perhaps because in some ways, despite his erudition and observational skills, Powers isn’t great at really expressing or articulating the emotional nuances of love and of loss.

Part of this problem in Orfeo stems from the subject-matter itself; the novel is riddled with incredibly dense thickets of musicological theory and criticism. There are “regions of cycling pitch groups,” and other technical expressions that pushed me towards panicky telephone calls so I could understand just what the hell Peter Els found so crucially affective in music.

Genetic engineering and musicology are subjects that are difficult to write about for an audience of experts, let alone a lay-person, so you can’t help but feel that Powers is not only digging his own ditch, he’s bringing his own jackhammer to the party. In an oddly twisted sort of way, Powers has created what Els is criticised for within the novel: “audience-hostile avant-garde.” And despite the fact that all Els wants to do is create the sort of music that will delight all his listeners, what we face through a hefty chunk of this prose is little more than cacophony.

So should you read this book? Absolutely. Will it frustrate you? Most likely. Will it challenge you? Probably. Will it move you? Perhaps. But probably not. There is something missing from the crescendo of prose and conceptual hybridisation that Powers manages with such technical competence. I have a feeling that this is the sort of book that does actually have passion, but it is deeply buried. Uncovering it will likely take a fair amount of re-reading and parsing ... and that’s OK, but be prepared to settle in for the long haul; much like its own protagonist, Orfeo needs diligence, time and commitment to seek out its soul.



By Richard Powers

W. W. Norton & Company, NY

ISBN 978-0393240825