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Orfeo: A Novel Paperback – September 2, 2014
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*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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Powers’s talent for translating avant-garde music into engrossing vignettes on the page is inexhaustible. Els’s obsession with avant-garde, which isolates him from everyone he loves, becomes the very thing that aligns him with the reader.”
- Publishers Weekly, Starred review
“Powers is prodigiously talented, he writes lyrical prose, has a seductive sense of wonder and is an acute observer of social life.”
- Jim Holt, The New York Times Book Review
“The earmarks of the renowned novelist’s work are here… but rarely have his novels been so tightly focused and emotionally compelling.”
- Kirkus, Starred review
“Bravo, Richard Powers, for hitting so many high notes with Orfeo and contributing to the fraction of books that really matter.”
- Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Orfeo reveals how a life, and the narrative of a life, accumulates, impossibly, infinitely, from every direction…. In this retelling of the Orpheus myth Powers also manages enchantment.”
- Scott Korb, Slate
“Orfeo… establishes beyond any doubt that the novel is very much alive.”
- Troy Jollimore, Chicago Tribune
“Magnificent and moving.”
- David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
“Part of the fun of reading [Powers] is to see how he wriggles out of his own snares. But a greater thrill is to join with him in untangling the most urgent and confounding puzzles of our age.”
- Nathaniel Rich, The New York Review of Books
“For sheer bravado in constructing sentences, few authors of contemporary fiction can surpass Powers…One of his finest yet.”
- Ted Gioia, The San Francisco Chronicle
“Powers’ writing is complex and heady without being head-achy, and his synesthetic descriptions of finding melodies in the mundane are full of their own kind of music.”
- Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly
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Synopses of this book throw around the fact that Els runs into trouble with the law because of experiments of genetic engineering and avant-garde music. Learning how these two things connect in Els' mind -- DNA modification and composition -- is for me at the climax of the book, and it takes all the preceding 4/5 of the narrative to build up to it.
This book's title is a reference to Greek mythology. Why use the Italian name, and not the English form Orpheus, is very suggestive, and reminiscent of specific operas. This association, though, never comes to the surface literally, and I feel it's a bit arcane. The post-scriptum interview sheds light on this and other topics, and is worth reading too.
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. Immediately, the music and the words began to entwine with one another. Powers was writing, as it were, in real time; as I would read something, I would hear it also, without even trying to get my bearings. But he was doing a lot more than just describing a particular piece at a particular time; somehow, he could summon a whole millennium of music, wrapping its end in its beginning, casting Reich's pulsing notes as the heartbeat of eternity.
Plot-based descriptions of the novel may make Els seem like some latter-day Frankenstein, but he really isn't. All the same, let me explain. After retiring from his small college in Pennsylvania, Els goes back to his old metier as a chemist (his major in college), and experiments with home gene-splicing, which is apparently less complex than it sounds. He is trying to encode a piece of music into a strand of DNA, then splice it into a living cell which would perpetuate it for all eternity. Early in the book, unfortunately, this gets him into trouble with Homeland Security; the present-day framework of the novel spans a period of about a week while he is evading arrest as a suspected terrorist. Not so, except in the radical sense that all music is terrorism, born of the need to destroy old assumptions and open fresh possibilty. Peter's gene-splicing project is both a kind of metaphor for music itself and a bid for immortality. For every single one of the pieces that form the sound-track to this extraordinary novel has to do with the passing of time and its end in death or silence.
And so it is in the plot. This is the story of an older man looking back at his life, his loves and losses, his wild inventions, all-consuming obsessions, successes and failures. Powers is not quite so good at conjuring up Els' own compositions as those of others, but he still gives a remarkable account of his progress as a composer from the radical years of the sixties through the eclecticism of the present. And he is equally fine as a novelist, showing Peter Els as a young man, discovering Mahler's music and his girlfriend's breasts at the same time, falling in love with the first singer of his Borges songs, making worlds afresh with his daughter, and then losing it all. Creation and loss and the passage of time, these are the themes of this book at every level. But Peter's road trip through America turns out to be about something else: the recapture and repair of the past; wrapping its end in its beginning, as with the Steve Reich; and like music, not ending at all.
Readers who are not musicians will probably not have read this far. And rightly so, for I am not sure this is the book for you. Powers' exploration of a man in his time and in eternity is a noble theme in any tongue, and he handles it masterfully. But he has chosen to tell it through the language of music -- and that may not be equally accessible to everyone. [7 stars for musicians; 3-4 otherwise]
I am returning to this having just read Powers' THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS, his landmark novel of 1991, and extraordinarily similar to this one. Surely ORFEO must be a deliberate attempt to write a farewell variation on the earlier book, bringing its subject up to date and adjusting the proportions? ORFEO's Peter Els has progressed to gene splicing in his kitchen, but Stuart Ressler, the equivalent scientist-composer in GBV, fifty years earlier works right on the edge of cracking the genetic code. The chief musical referent in GBV, as its title would indicate, is Bach's Goldberg Variations; ORFEO is immersed in modernism, the music of the postwar period. Both have to do with death, inheritance, and immortality, but ORFEO treats the theme more lyrically, with greater heartbreak. Reading GBV, it would seem that Powers was trying to get in everything he knew about everything -- history, science, mathematics, linguistics, painting, philosophy -- bursting at the seams as though he would never again write another novel. ORFEO is not only slimmer but more focused. Powers is still the same extraordinary polymath, but here he has chosen one medium to carry all the others. And this is music, in which he is totally superb.
The main character, Peter Els, was frustrating but compelling, and he and his best friend are quite a pair. The tension between populism and self-fulfillment as played out by those two is a central theme that I quite enjoyed.
Less good were the parallels between DNA and music. They were mostly good for some really neat metaphors. The author's knowledge of biology and chemistry is clearly less than his knowledge of music, and it shows in how underdeveloped that aspect was.
The story plays out like a fever dream, in which it is never quite clear if the protagonist is "guilty" or even quite what that term means in this context. The plot is simply a recounting of Peter's life, with a very simple road trip to frame it in modern day.
In net, a thoughtful and beautifully evoked character study. It seems quite clear that the author was trying to achieve certain things with this book that were lost on me, but I enjoyed it for its freshness and uniqueness.
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