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Orfeo: A Novel Hardcover – January 20, 2014


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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Retired composer Peter Els has an unusual hobby, do-it-yourself genetic engineering. Is his work dangerous? We’re not sure, but when hazmat-suited government agents descend on his home, he flees, becoming perhaps the world’s least likely suspected terrorist, the “biohacker Bach.” On his prolonged cross-country journey, we learn Els’ life story in flashback: how he fell in love with music and with a woman, went to school at the height of the avant garde, and began a lifelong struggle between the urge to invent and the need to please. World events, from JFK’s assassination to 9/11 to H5N1, provide a kind of tragic meter. Els’ leap from music to genetics seems forced at first, but Powers (a National Book Award winner for The Echo Maker, 2006) plays the long game, sure-handedly building a rich metaphor in which composition is an analog for other kinds of human invention, with all the beauty and terror that implies. Like his protagonist, he makes art that challenges rather than reassures his audience. Powers has a way of rendering the world that makes it seem familiar and alien, friendly and frightening. He is sometimes criticized as too cerebral, but when the story’s strands knit fully together in the final act, the effect is heartbreaking and beautiful. --Keir Graff

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A fascinating novel about the allure and power of music. "
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (January 20, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393240827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393240825
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (140 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #103,321 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 21, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are a music-lover, read this book for its extraordinary insight into the mind of a musician. At least listen to its sound-track. For, as he proved in THE TIME OF OUR SINGING, Richard Powers is peerless in his ability to recapture music through words. As he looks back over the life of American composer Peter Els -- fictional but so possible -- he tells his story as much through the music he listens to as by what he writes or does himself. He fills many pages at a time with the sound of masterpieces, some familiar, some obscure, all miraculous. I knew most of the pieces that first awaken Els to music, so I could hear them in my head: Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time. But Powers treats them with a depth of perception and breadth of reference that I know will send me back to my CDs to hear them again through his ears. His account of the genesis and performance of the Messaien in a German POW camp especially, though based upon a source that he gladly acknowledges, is twenty-five pages of sheer wonder.

Halfway through the novel, Powers mentions a piece I hadn't heard in many years: Terry Riley's In C, arguably the seminal work of American minimalism. So I found a recording on You Tube and played it as I read on, and kept doing this until the end, with composers such as Shostakovich, Harry Partch, or Peter Lieberson. The most striking was an almost hallucinatory sequence in which Els, on the run from the FBI, is in a college-town cafe. A piece is playing on the sound system: Proverb, Steve Reich's exploration of a text by Wittgenstein. I did not know this at all, so stopped to put it on.
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42 of 51 people found the following review helpful By A. Jogalekar VINE VOICE on January 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Reading a Richard Powers novel is always an experience. Powers is one of the world's most creative and cerebral writers. His novels contain surprising, dextrous and often amazingly imaginative connections between a dazzling array of ideas from poetry, music, culture, science and technology. The metaphors and allusions he weaves can leave readers stupefied. This is only my second Powers book but I can attest that reading a book by this remarkable author is never easy and sometimes exhausting, but always rewarding.

Powers's latest novel amply evidences all these qualities. The main storyline is about a music composer doing biotechnology in his garage as a hobby who flees from the authorities after they misunderstanding his tinkering. But this main story is almost a byline and the real purpose is to explore Peter Els's life and especially the river of music that has been his constant companion. Along the way we are treated to expansive, creative, several pages-long descriptions of famous music pieces like Mozart's Jupiter symphony, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Classical music aficionados will find these descriptions a treat and will gaze upon Powers's prodigious musical knowledge with wonder. Some of the renditions - like an exquisite unpacking of Steve Reich's eerie, haunting "Proverb" in a scene set in a college cafe - are mesmerizing. In fact it's worth listening to the relevant pieces either during or after the reading (there are two Spotify lists of the music on Powers's website).
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Thomas F. Dillingham VINE VOICE on January 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Patterns. Repetitions. Rules. Freedom. Mastery.

In her essay "On Beauty and Being Just," Elaine Scarry poses a question: "What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Beauty brings copies of itself into being. . . . Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable." Scarry has much more to say about the experiences of beauty in our lives, but her constant point is that beauty is not useless and not escapist--that beauty moves us to make better lives, a better world, not just for ourselves, selfishly, but for all humanity.

Readers of Richard Powers's novels have become accustomed to his challenges--to the layered and complex issues his narratives raise and force us to consider, maybe contemplate, while we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of his characters. In his most recent novel, Orfeo, the composer/chemist hero, Peter Els, confronts many challenges to his youthful belief that making music is creating beauty--a belief that is decidedly out of fashion during his days as a student and young adult. When the novel begins, he is a retired teacher living with his aging Golden Labrador and engaged in a hobby based on his first college major, chemistry: that is, he is doing research into gene splicing because he is interested in whether music (the making of music, responses to music) is genetically determined.
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