Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo (Norton, 2014) is about a dissatisfied man at the end of his life looking back at everything he has done wrong, and everything he has failed to achieve. It is about a man coming to terms with the outline of his failures, trying to make amends to the people he once loved, trying to come to terms with mortality. The often elegiac tone of retrospection that governs the novel, especially as composer Peter Els flees across the country, first visiting his former wife, then his friend Richard, and finally his daughter Sara, infuses the narrative with emotional power. Although the details of my life are quite different from those of Els, I identified with him and found the novel, as a result, both moving and depressing. I also found it to be a very fine work.
Orfeo fuses the story of a failed composer of modern classical music with bio-terrorism. Powers makes this improbable combination work.
Powers employs an indirect form of first-person narration in this novel. The main character Peter Els does not tell the story himself. Powers as author, or implied author (to use an archaism), narrates through him, conveying speech and thought, all placed in the context not merely of Els’ life but of the history of the moment. The reader therefore experiences the drama indirectly, rather than directly. There are benefits to this method, and challenges. Such narration can become tedious, and at times the reader may feel as if he is being guided too forcibly towards whatever end the author wants to achieve. I felt pushed along in Orfeo. At moments, when Powers is describing what is going through Els’ mind as he listens to a particular work of music, murky confusion results. On the other hand, I won’t complain too much.
Els doesn’t have a strong personality. He doesn’t exude much personal force. He is more often driven along by the women he loves, by his friend Richard, by the musical calling he would like to follow, by musical trends he doesn’t like but feels compelled to follow. He drifts into marriage and then out of it, hardly aware of what has happened. He’s out of tune with his age. He sees music as a transformative force. He believes in melody at a time when modern music is becoming increasingly avant garde, directed not so much at an audience as at the artistic inclinations of the composer. (John Cage appears as a minor character). Els wants to compose music that people admire and listen to, but the music he wants to write is not the kind of music he feels obligated to write.
It seems likely that some of Els’ work is good. But his passive, reticent nature prevents him from receiving more attention or pursuing a serious career. The opera he composes at the instigation of his friend Richard Bonner receives a strong positive reaction from the audience, but Els is so worried that people will think that its concern with a 17th-century rebellion will be confused with the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas (which has just happened when the opera premieres), that he refuses to allow it to be produced again. Yet people do know about him, he has a small following, and he works successfully as an adjunct teacher of composition at a small liberal arts college
In the present time of the novel Els is 70 years old. He has been retired for several years, still teaches on an occasional basis, not composing very often. He has become interested in biological engineering. With the proper expertise and equipment (most of which can be bought in surplus form online or at hobbyist stores), amateur self-trained scientists can perform fairly sophisticated work in their own living rooms. Hence the reasonable fear by government security agencies of biological terrorism by individuals who brew up toxins or biological agents at home and release them to the public. This is not what Els is doing. He is attempting to discover whether he can imbed the notes of a musical composition into the DNA strands of a non-lethal microorganism and then release it into the world. He would then at least have the audience (unknowing audience) that he has longed for. When Homeland Security agents mistake his experimental work for that of a biological terrorist, they raid his house, and instead of explaining himself, he flees. He flees throughout the novel.
Powers uses historical markers to ground the narrative in the last half of the 20th century—Els’ opera premieres immediately after the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas in 1993, for instance. Sometimes these references are important to the story, as in this case, but sometimes they can seem gratuitous.
Els is often listening to or thinking about music during the novel. Music is how he experiences and measures his life. I found the treatment of music in this novel particularly exciting. Orfeo was an intense and affecting experience, one that kept me up reading late into the night.