Orfeo by Richard Powers: A journey through a very modern underworld

Cover image This is the third novel I’ve read by Richard Powers – The Echo Maker and Generosity were the first two. Both deal with complex issues in erudite, meticulously crafted prose: The Echo Maker looks at identity and neurology through the plight of Mark Schluter who suffers from Capgras syndrome – an inability to recognise the people he knows as anything but their imposters – while Generosity explores the link between personality and genes through a young woman fleeing terror whose happiness seems inexplicable. These brief synopses barely scratch the surface of either novel, stuffed full as they are with observations on the myriad complexities of modern life all neatly wrapped up in engrossing stories. I was expecting a challenge, then, rather than a breezy little read.

Peter Els has spent much of his life composing avant-garde music. He’s tapped out rhythms with his fingers for as long as he can remember. He’s also had a lifelong interest in science, beginning a chemistry degree but changing to music thanks to the charismatic Clara who can see no other path through life. Now seventy he’s embarking on an attempt to bring these two strands together: setting up a lab in his home, ordering samples of DNA through the internet and experimenting with ways in which the notation for a musical piece might be transcribed into those samples. When his beloved dog suffers a stroke Els panics, phones 911 and the police turn up, their security antennae soon alerted by the presence of bacteria-filled petri dishes in a suburban home. Next a duo from the Joint Security Task Force lands on his doorstep quizzing him about what he’s up to. Then, while he’s out for a run, his house is raided and he’s faced with a decision: give himself up or make himself scarce. He chooses the latter, giving his weekly lecture at a retirement community before starting out on a road trip which will take him to his ex-wife, his old friend and colleague, and his daughter all of whom try to help him.

Els’s journey is played out against the vivid backdrop of his life story: his childhood marked by the sudden loss of his father, his passionate love affair with Clara, marriage to Maddy and – always – his passion for his work much of it in collaboration with the manic Richard. Both the journey and his story are punctuated by brief and apparently random thoughts on music, science and life which was, at first, somewhat perplexing but all became clear as the novel drew to an end making me look back over them again. It’s a novel bursting with ideas. In its complexity, intellect and sheer chutzpah, Orfeo put me in mind of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, in particular the way Powers writes about music. If I wasn’t such a musical illiterate I’m sure I would have been able to hear Messiaen’s The Quartet for the End of Time in my head from Powers’s description but instead I was captivated by his telling of the story behind it. It’s not a novel that lets you slip your brain into neutral but if you’re prepared to work at it expect to be rewarded even if, like me, you’re left scratching your head over some aspects of it.

And if you think that the idea of Homeland Security raiding a music professor’s home lab containing nothing that you can’t buy through the internet seems far-fetched, Powers’s novel was apparently inspired by the case of Steve Kurtz, a performance artist arrested for terrorism for similar reasons.

10 thoughts on “Orfeo by Richard Powers: A journey through a very modern underworld”

  1. This sounds amazing and I had never heard of the author. I am very interested in the science-humanities connection and actually, there is a new filed called “medical humanities” linking them! I think out of those 3 books, Generosity would be my favourite 🙂

    1. I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to read it, Elena. Generosity would be a good place to start with Powers. Orfeo is the most cerebral of the three, I think, but worth the effort.

  2. I’m glad you mention Generosity as a good place to start. I’ve long been meaning to read Richard Powers but have not yet made it there… Your wonderful review certainly motivates me to fit him in somewhere – and soon!

    1. Thank you! I think Generosity is more accessible than Orfeo but that may be my musical illiteracy. I’m amazed at his erudition in all three of the – very different – novels by him that I’ve read.

    1. Well, Naomi has posted a comment after yours saying that it’s one of the best books she’s ever read so it sounds as if you’re in for a treat. Clearly one for my own list, too.

  3. I bought this a couple of weeks ago and am looking forward to reading it. I’ve only read one other Powers – The Time of Our Singing – and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  4. I haven’t read any Powers but given all that has been said her I am clearly going to have to do something about that. He sounds as if he would be perfect for my Wednesday evening book group so maybe I can get him fitted in there. As for this book, it chimed perfectly with where I find myself at the moment – not quite as old as Peter, but not far off, and suddenly finding myself with an idea for a piece of research that would combine two very different strands of the work I’ve done up to now. I’ve been trying to think my way through all the problems that could arise if I set out on it, however, I have to say that being raided by Homeland Security hadn’t so far been at the top of my list.

    1. Susan Osborne

      That sounds intriguing, Alex. I hope you’ll be able to share it with us when you do clarify how to bring those strands together. And I do hope it won’t involve a cross country road trip evading the clutches of the security forces!

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.