When Martin Mull said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," he most definitely was not referring to the work of Richard Powers. In "Orfeo," Powers, winner of the National Book Award for his 2006 novel, "The Echo Maker," has produced an ambitious story about the inexpressible power of music and one man's passionate attempt to communicate in its unique language.
Seventy-year-old avant-garde composer Peter Els has worked all his life to write music "that will change its listeners," to "scribble down the tune that would raise everyone he ever knew from the dead and make them laugh with remembering." But he's labored mostly in obscurity, unable to connect with an audience capable of appreciating his singular vision, a cruel contrast to the character of Greek myth who gives the novel its title.
Retired from a teaching position at a small Pennsylvania college, Els dabbles with gene sequencing at a crude home laboratory in an audacious attempt to revisit the career in science he abandoned for art. He inadvertently attracts the attention of the local police, and the hypervigilance of post-9/11 America soon prompts a raid by the hazmat-clad Joint Security Task Force. Els takes to the road, rather than trust he'll be able to explain his benign, if bizarre, science project. "Renown had evaded Peter Els his whole life," but he quickly becomes one of the most notorious fugitives in the land.
The account of Els' flight from the authorities who have dubbed him the "Biohacker Bach" occupies the novel's foreground, but like a recurring musical theme Powers orchestrates seamless transitions into his protagonist's past that provide a more absorbing story line than whether this septuagenarian will elude his pursuers. In one well-crafted scene after another, Powers probes the conflict between the imperatives of art and the unrelenting demands of commerce, in the process creating a sympathetic portrait of a gifted, if damaged, soul.
"Orfeo" is that rare novel truly deserving of the label "lyrical." Powers' gorgeous and deeply felt writing about music sent me back to Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and introduced me to Steve Reich's "Proverb." This is an
ambitious work of broad scope and big ideas, like most of Powers' fiction. It invites us to consider the cruel sacrifices art sometimes demands, in "the curse of a life spent looking for transcendence," and asks whether those sacrifices can ever be too great. For a man like Peter Els, music "doesn't mean things. It is things.
"All I ever wanted was to make one slight noise that might delight you all," he reflects. In a novel that's anything but slight, Richard Powers offers a profound story whose delights are many and lasting.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Pa.