The OF Blog: Richard Powers, Orfeo

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Richard Powers, Orfeo

The officers swung back toward the front door.  Off the dining room, a study stood open.  The room's shelves swelled with beakers, tubing, and jars with printed labels.  A half-sized refrigerator stood next to a long counter, where a compound microscope sat hooked up to a computer.  The white metal body, black eyepieces, and silver objective looked like an infant Imperial Stormtrooper.  More equipment covered a workbench on the far wall, glowing with colored LCDs.

Whoa, Officer Powell said.

My lab, Els explained.

I thought you wrote songs.

It's a hobby.  It relaxes me. 

The woman, Officer Estes, frowned.  What are all the petri dishes for? 

Peter Els wiggled his fingers.  To house bacteria.  Same as us. 

Would you mind if we...? 

Els drew back and studied his interrogator's badge.  It's getting a little late. 

The police officers traded glances.  Officer Powell opened his mouth to clarify, then stopped.

All right, Officer Estes said.  We're sorry about your dog. 

Peter Els shook his head.  That dog would sit and listen for hours.  She loved every kind of music there is.  She even sang along. (p. 7)

Richard Powers' eleventh novel, Orfeo, can be read on two levels:  a fugitive thriller and as a treatise of sorts on music and biology.  There certainly are grounds for both, as the frame story of a seventy-year-old former music teacher and amateur biologist, Peter Els, getting in trouble with the police for having what appears to be a homebrew bioterrorist kit certainly contains enough twists and turns to satisfy thriller fans.  But it is the flashback sequences, to Peter's former life and his love for music and his desire to encode music within bacterial DNA, that comprise the heart of the novel. 

Powers divides his frame and flashback stories through the use of cordoned-off epigraphs that end up comprising a related story whose impact on the main narrative is not seen until the end.  It is an effective device, as it allows for short, quick transitions without being too abrupt.  As Peter narrates his experiments with his dog Fidelio and her ability to discern tonality, the narrative tenor shifts subtly toward a slower, more rhythmic pace than the sharper, more staccato bursts of dialogue that comprise much of the frame story.  There is a discernible pattern to the prose, almost as if Powers were exploring tonality of a spoken sort within some of these passages.

There are times where the discussion of music and bacterial encoding become almost too complex, too full of jargon.  At these moments, thankfully few in number, the narrative devolves to a series of lists, barely connected to the lives enfolding around Peter's discoveries.  For the majority of the sections, however, Powers manages to achieve a layering effect by these lists of music and muses, such as this passage:

Reading wasn't possible.  All Els was good for was music.  Shelves in the front room held three dozen jewel boxes – road trip listening, left here in the vacation home alongside battered Parcheesi sets and moldy quiz books.  Ripped copies of Ella Fitzgerald's Verve Songbooks, They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a smattering of emo, albums by Wilco, Jay-Z, the Dirt Bombs, the Strokes, and Rage Against the Machine.  There was a time when the proliferation of so many musical genres left Els cowering in a corner, holding up the Missa Solemnis as a shield.  Now he wanted alarm and angry dream, style and distraction, as much ruthless novelty as the aging youth industry could still deliver.

He found a disc by a group called Anthrax, as if some real bioterrorist had planted it there to frame him.  He looked around the cottage for something to play it on.  In the kitchen he found a nineties-style boom box.  He slipped the disc into the slot and with a single rim shot was surrounded by an air raid announcing the end of the world.  A driving motor rhythm in the drums propelled virtuosic parallel passages in the guitars and bass.  The song came on like a felon released from multiple life sentences.  The melodic machete went straight through Els's skin.  It took no imagination to see a stadium of sixty thousand people waving lighters and basking in a frenzy of shared power.  The music said you had one chance to blow through life, and the only crime was wasting it on fear. (p. 171)

Being familiar with each of the bands listed here, Powers's description of their sounds struck a chord.  There is an eloquence about his comments about Anthrax's sound that makes their music come alive for me twenty years after I stopped listening to them regularly.  There are numerous passages in Orfeo that speak to this love of music and how music is so interconnected with language and human desire.  As the story unfolds and we learn more about Peter's life, Powers manages to weave together the fugitive and flashback sequences in a complex double helix similar to the bacterial DNA he was studying.

There are, of course, other symbolic references within Orfeo, beginning with the titular reference to the mythological musician who sought to bring his bride Eurydice back from the dead.  Powers explores this in subtle ways, with an ending that is fitting without being too contrived or obvious.  Yet ultimately the plot, although for the most part executed well, matters less than how the reader comes to appreciate the musical topic.  For those who are not enamored with music or at least experience some wordless joy when listening to it, Orfeo may be a sonic wall that keeps them from understanding the novel's full import.  But for others, Powers' dexterity in mixing musical tonality with a deep, personal story leads to a deeply satisfying tale.  It may not be the easiest or most plot-centric of the Booker Prize nominees, but it certainly contains a beauty in its prose and thematic execution that make it a joy to read.

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