Orfeo is a novel about a musician on the run from the FBI and it is also a lyrical reflection on art.
In 2004, pumped up on Patriot Act paranoia, the FBI arrested the artist Steve Kurtz on suspicion of bioterrorism. He had called the emergency services when his wife died of a heart attack and when the police arrived they discovered the lab he used to create his BioArt installations. Despite nothing in his lab being harmful, it took Kurtz four years to clear his name. It was an exemplary intertwining of the culture of fear and the fear of culture.
It is also a premise made for a Richard Powers novel, barely credible were it not rooted in reality. Orfeo opens with Peter Els, a 70-year-old composer, calling 911 in a moment of panic when his dog starts haemorrhaging. The police show up and discover Els, the dead dog and, in a back room, an improvised lab replete with beakers, Petri dishes and a compound microscope that looks “like an infant Imperial Stormtrooper”. On his wall is a 16th-century print of Arabic music. To the cops, this is not a felicitous counterpoint.
It turns out that Els studied chemistry at university before realising his vocation was to write obscure music. Now he has decided to synthesise both and inscribe musical notation into the genomes of bacteria. The police take a dim view of this project and when Els next returns home, his house has been quarantined and there’s a man in a hazmat suit poking a probe down his chimney. Els goes on the run. The news media dub him the Bioterrorist Bach.
Powers loves this kind of stuff. He studied physics at university, taught himself computer programming in his spare time and dictates his novels into state-of-the-art voice recognition software, expounding, with frightening authority, on genetics, neurology, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. As research for Orfeo, his 11th novel, he wangled a position in a molecular biology lab at Stanford University.
Powers is not just scientifically literate. In his youth he was also an accomplished cellist, singer and even wrote his own music, and in inventing Els he immersed himself in the 20th-century avant-garde. The result, as expressed by Els, is the idea that “music and chemistry were each other’s long-lost twins: mixtures and modulations, spectral harmonies and harmonic spectroscopy”.
This novel is itself structured in twin narrative strands that weave in and out of each other, separated by strange epigraphs whose provenance is revealed in the final pages. The first strand is Els on the run, the second the story of how Els became the kind of composer that wanted to write music on bacteria. Think John Cage with a pipette. Proportionally, there’s a lot more Künstlerroman than thriller.
There is much lyrical evocation of the transcendent quality of music. Here is Els, at 11, losing his musical virginity to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony: “Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hang in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.”
How you feel about Orfeo comes down to how strong a stomach you have for this kind of ekphrastic excess. Most of the time Powers nails it, and it is exhilarating stuff; when he gets it wrong, though, it reads like a wine label.
Here’s Els hearing his future wife sing for the first time. “Her sound was witty, almost comical. She had a nice, warm soubrette, but a hint too light and Papagena for his Borges songs. What he wanted was spinto, or even coloratura.” Don’t we all.
When Powers writes about complex science, he does so with almost erotic fascination; when he writes about sex he unleashes his computer programmer. A love interest makes her entrance and is described as looking like “a Tolkien Elf”. When Els gets it on with the elf, “her silk blouse billowed open, and her 4ft of hair tented him in a Botticelli skein”. A later sex scene involves a couple “moving on her mattress like a single eight-limbed thing”.
Yet when Powers steers clear of the bedroom, the false notes are rare, and his capacity for evoking and verbalising the effect of music is remarkable. The description of Messiah’s composition and performance of Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prison camp is an astonishing piece of writing, as is the account of the debut of Shostakovich’s Fifth, shortly after Stalin had denounced him.
Punctuated by these digressions, the novel itself generates real momentum in the final act, as our Orpheus travels deeper into the American underworld. The critical cliché is that Powers is all head and no heart. That is certainly not true of Orfeo. If anything, the novel flirts with sentimentality as Els turns his flight into a redemptive road trip. Els’s problem is that nobody really cares about the music he makes; Powers’ triumph is that he makes you care about Els.
Book Review by Duncan White culled from Telegraph