In his Paris Review interview, Richard Powers expressed his longing for a sensory deprivation tank where he could dictate his writing with absolutely no distraction. Reading his many novels about characters obsessed with science, technology, and art, you can imagine him floating in the darkness emitting one flowing brilliant, lyrical paragraph after the next; winking at us, too, from his silent chamber as he draws attention to his process of creation and self-reflection.
Throughout his three decade career, with a rare courage and relentlessness, Powers has searched for the right form to tell his characters’ stories while dramatizing the forces of history pressing against them, striving to incorporate essay-like commentary without breaking the fictional dream. While there seems to be near universal acclaim for Powers’s genius, his talent for writing emotionally palpable characters is often questioned: a recent New York Times review even gives a name to his alleged Achilles’s heel, “The Powers’s Problem.” Justified or not, this rap has caused Powers to be pigeonholed as too cerebral, as if his fiction is too smart for its own good.
Powers’s latest, Orfeo, doesn’t attempt to solve the so-called Powers’s Problem. It obviates it with a glorious abundance of what Powers does best. Indeed, among the many delights of this, yes, cerebral, provocative, but also moving tour-de-force is to watch Powers playfully scold his critics that, however well-intentioned, their judgments are inconsequential to the pursuit of art.
The modern-day Orpheus at the heart of the novel is Peter Els, an avant-garde composer and amateur chemist spending his retirement trying to code musical notation in the DNA of a bacterium. The feds want to bring in Els for questioning about his unusual hobby, prompting Els, now an alleged bioterrorist, to flee from his home, causing a nationwide panic propagated by social media. As Els evades his pursuers, he considers the critical choices he’s made in his life during his coming of age as a musician and composer in the fifties and sixties and in the subsequent decades as he struggled to make art and a life. This is no slow rumination. Powers drives the narrative with a propulsive immediacy, deftly quick-cutting between past and present.
Els’s love of music is intertwined with the people who influenced him, beginning with his first love, Clara, “who listened to eight-hundred-year-old conductus as if it were a news flash…Before Clara, no piece had any real power to hurt him. After, he heard danger everywhere.” Here’s Els listening to Clara’s cherished Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children):
At first, there’s only a thread of frost spreading across a pane. Oboe and horn trace out their parallel privacies. The thin sinews wander, an edgy duet built up from bare fourths and fifths.
The singer enters, hesitant, hinted by bassoon. She channels a man wrung out after a sleepless night, a father with nothing left to keep safe. Now the sun will rise so brightly…
The sun rises, but the line sinks. The orchestration, the nostalgic harmonies: everything wrapped in the familiar late nineteenth century, but laced with the coming fever dream. Bassoon and horn rock an empty cradle.
In these musical passages, Powers marries a technical and emotional clarity with descriptions of dramatic beauty, letting the reader feel what it feels like to be Els lying with his young girlfriend, listening to Mahler for the first time, as refracted through the wise, emotive sensibility of an old composer.
Indeed, the moral center of the novel may be a music appreciation lecture Els gives at a retirement home about Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The story of how Messiaen composed and performed his masterwork in a Nazi prison camp is an extraordinary thirteen page set piece of thematic bravado brought to the forefront of the narrative, demonstrating like so many other facets of this book the mastery Powers has achieved due to his bold experiments in form.
When the last notes die out in the frozen air, nothing happens. The captive audience sits in silence. And in silence, awe and anger, perplexity and joy, all sound the same. At last there’s applause. The prisoners in their clogs and bottle-green Czech uniforms fall back into the world and make an awkward bow. And then, Le Boulaire will recall decades later, lots of unresolved discussions, about this thing that no one had understood.
Along with his education in listening, we also experience Els’s nascent urge to make music like a joyful itch that will never go away. Here’s Els in college, after being provoked by Clara to give up his aspiration to be a chemist to be a composer.
For the next five weeks, when he should have been studying for final exams, he worked in secret. He stole hours from labs, from classes, even from Clara, who turned giddy with concealed suspicion. He took to working in lightning shorthand, sketching out music in quick, clean strokes, the way a child might scribble a crayon moon, a loopy forest, and a gash of campfire, and call it night. There was no time for orchestration. The thing unfolded on the simplest scale, for solo piano and voices. But he heard every line in massed banks of instrumental color. The wayfaring winds, the swelling support of brass, a raft of low strings bearing forward.
Els eventually loses Clara and “strange, vital, viral creations began pouring out of him.” In the early 60s, he enrolls in graduate school in Champaign-Urbana, “a breeding ground for mutant musical strains surrounded by hundreds of miles of corn, soybean, and rural, religious American in every direction,” where Els struggles to find his way as the world is tearing down the old rules. Powers captures the serious urgency of a naive young artist, as in this cutting scene in class when Els praises a performance of Barber’s Hermit Songs, only to be derided by his classmates.
A stunned Els appealed to the professor.
It’s a great piece, don’t you think?
The man stifled his amusement and looked around for the hidden camera. Sure, if you still dig beauty.
Els sat through the session humiliated. He raged against the man at the grad student Murphy’s happy hour, but no one backed him up. When he checked out a recording of Hermit Songs from the music library the following week, he found them banal and predictable.
He’d learn the truth from Thomas Mann later that semester: Art was combat, an exhausting struggle. And it was impossible to stay fit for long. Music wasn’t about learning how to love. It was about learning what to disown and when to disown it. Even the most magnificent piece would end up as collateral damage in the endless war over taste.
And, later that semester, after composing his work, Rapture, for chamber orchestra, soprano, and reel-to-reel tape machines, he receives the full gamut of critiques from his professors.
Mattison condemned the finished piece as decorative. Johnston liked the virtuoso reach, but wanted something more purged of familiar harmonic gestures. Hiller found it intriguing but inchoate. And Brün wanted to know how such music helped bring about a just society.
Els squirreled away his teachers’ cavils and crafted his revenge.
You can imagine Powers squirreling away his critics’ cavils to craft his revenge, too, by inventing even more innovative ways to tell his stories –– looking forward but also looking back as does Els, his alter-ego:
In secret, he returned to the exhausted vocabularies of the old masters, looking for lost clues, trying to work out how they’d managed, once, to twist the viscera and swell whatever it was in humans that imagined it was a soul. Some part of him could not help believing that the key to re-enchantment still lay in walking backward into the future.
Els falls for a singer named Maddy, who drives a microbus likes she’s sailing on ice, who he admires for her openness to the revolution they are living. “He loves her steady refusal to descend to liking or not liking, those sentimental actions that have nothing to do with listening to music.” For, this novel, more than a biotech thriller or bildungsroman, is a love story, first between Els and Clara, then Els and Maddy, who becomes his wife, and still later, with Els’s daughter, Sara, who Els comes to thinks of in the end as his only decent composition.
After he becomes a husband and father, Els continues to engage in the combat of art, but he finds it impossible to stay fit for long. His compulsion eventually causes him to give up his wife and also his daughter who grows up a stranger living half a continent away. And after decades living as a recluse, Els’s compulsion eventually drives him to rekindle his love of chemistry to attempt his most ambitious and dangerous composition yet, to embed music in DNA.
As far as Els knew, the nonsense string would live alongside the bacterium’s historical repertoire, silently doing nothing. Like the best conceptual art, it would sit ignored by the millions of trades going on in the marketplace all around it. With luck, during cell division, the imposter message would replicate for a few generations, before life got wise and shed the free rider. Or maybe it would be picked up, inspired randomness, and ride forever.
Is Els a terrorist? Did his home biology experiment literally kill people? Will he reconcile with his ex-wife and daughter? It won’t spoil it to say that Powers brings the novel to a wonderfully bizarre, Saundersesque crescendo, threading his themes together like a glorious piece of music that compels you to go back to the beginning and listen to it all again.
And you may want to start the novel over to fully appreciate the pithy commentary interspersed throughout the text, each snippet no longer than 140 characters, from the genius floating in the dark tank. Yes, Orfeo is brilliant, but please don’t let that stop you from reading it.