A retired music professor on the run from the government confronts his past in Richard Powers's profound yet accessible 11th novel.
Written for Barnes & Noble Review by Tom LeClair
Since reviewing Richard Powers's second novel, "Prisoner's Dilemma," in 1988, I've had to keep track of his age so that, when asked who to read, I can say, "Powers. He's the most important living American novelist under" whatever age he happens to be at the time. Now he's 56, and I believe only (in alphabetical order) DeLillo, Morrison, Pynchon, and Roth – all two decades older – stand above him. Of novelists in Powers's generation with whom he is often compared – Franzen, Vollmann, Wallace – none equals Powers's combination of consistent production, intellectual range, formal ingenuity, and emotional effect.
Powers has now published 11 novels and won the National Book Award for "The Echo Maker" in 2007, and yet he remains unknown and intimidating territory to many readers. Orfeo seems designed to reach a wider audience and is an excellent introduction to his concerns in earlier books. Powers novels usually achieve their depth through parallax, splicing together two eras or several stories or different kinds of information: World War I in Holland and contemporary Boston in "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance"; programmers developing a virtual reality cave in Seattle and a hostage struggling to survive in Beirut in "Plowing the Dark"; two love stories, Bach, and genetics in two separate decades in "The Gold Bug Variations."
"Orfeo" is different. It tells the life of one contemporary character, Peter Els, a 70-year-old composer and retired music professor; initially fits the now-established genre of the bioterrorism thriller; and follows a linear plot that transpires over a couple of weeks. A chemistry student in college, Peter has bought equipment that allows him to engineer pathogenic bacteria in his Pennsylvania home. When Homeland Security hears of this and raids, Peter flees, first hiding out alone and then seeking out persons from his past.
His former therapist and lover gives him a smartphone with a GPS to help his flight. His former wife in St. Louis gives him money. His old collaborator in Phoenix lets Peter have his car; and his daughter, who has given him her attention over the last decade despite being abandoned as a child, offers to shelter him in San Francisco.
This escape-and-return plot occurs at the end of "Prisoner's Dilemma," but "Orfeo" has more narrative momentum and suspense – What is Peter's plan for the bacteria? Will he be caught? – than other Powers novels. I can almost see a slimmed-down Frank Langella as Peter Els in the westering road-trip movie.
"Orfeo" is different but not so different. During the interstate stretches between stops, Powers constructs a biography that shares features with other protagonists' lives in "Powers World," a phrase the author uses in two novels. Like the character named "Powers" in "Galatea 2.2," Peter attends college to study science and then disappoints his father by switching to art – to music.
Also like "Powers," he falls in love at the University of Illinois, moves with his lover to Boston (where one becomes a museum guard), dedicates himself to his art, and loses his lover. Then, like the biologist Ressler in "The Gold Bug Variations," who gives up science at Illinois for music composition, Peter goes to New York and takes marginal jobs. He has a little success with his experimental compositions, but Peter eventually withdraws for a decade to a Unabomber-like existence in a New Hampshire cabin before taking a teaching job at a small college in Pennsylvania.
Although Peter has contacts with various movements in music – John Cage's "musicircus" at Illinois, mixed-media extravaganzas, downtown New York minimalism in the 1980s, computer-generated performances – his story is personal, specific. "Orfeo" and Peter have plenty of ideas about music, but Peter is primarily a complex individual, grappling for decades with families lost and friendships tested, secondarily a representative artist whose vocation can't support him in an age of mass media. His life is sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, occasionally comic, and eventually sad. That's when Peter starts composing new bacteria.
As "Orfeo" illustrates, Powers's work is most fundamentally about recombination. Genetics is the source and model, mentioned in his first book, most explicit in "The Gold Bug Variations," crucial in his last novel, "Generosity," and a force in "Orfeo," but the repetition and variation of genetics are also present in other constituents of Powers World: musical history in "Orfeo," computer programming in several books, even the flight of cranes in "The Echo Maker." And the 11 novels, as I've suggested with just a few examples, are themselves recombinant, twisting like the double helix character types and common themes from one novel to another, turning and returning to situations, examining similar lives from different perspectives.
The importance of Powers that I so baldly asserted earlier issues from the variety, interpretive power, and contemporaneity of these perspectives, which are usually scientific. Game theory, chaos theory, cognitive connectionism, oncology, relativity physics, and evolutionary psychology are some of the disciplines Powers employs to understand – and expand – what it means to be human.
In "The Echo Maker," he establishes deep analogies between neurology and ecology. Put simply, Powers knows more than other novelists of his generation and knows how to use his prodigious expertise to place substantial, thoughtful characters in "the intricate, ingenious forms" (to quote Peter) that Powers's best fictions create to imitate the information they contain. In "Generosity" a character runs through a list of words deriving from the old Latin gens: gene, genius, ingenuity, and generosity are the ones most applicable to Powers and his World.
In "Orfeo" it's bacteria that Powers knows as both a basis of human life and, in certain drug-resistant mutations, a danger to human lives. For this book, Powers seems to have been reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Powers gives Peter and readers just enough information to establish the threat of bioterrorism and to spring the plot, but bacteria function more as a metaphor than a full-fledged intellectual perspective of the kind I've mentioned. Listening to his car radio, Peter finds the coarsening of discourse and music an all-over, all-the-time phenomenon like bacteria. Equally pervasive, invisible, and invasive is the government's ability to trace a citizen's interests and movements through surveillance of his entries into the electronic web.
But the primary target of Powers's bacteriological metaphor is the omnipresent "growth industry" in fear that an American media environment of constant threat nourishes like food left too long out of the refrigerator. Powers uses the phrase "Age of Bacteria," but Age of Panic might have been truer to the contemporary reportage he incorporates into "Orfeo." In mythic terms, the cultural critique in the novel pits Orpheus, the master of calming music, versus Pan, the god of mass fear.
For all of Powers's knowledge of and respect for up-to-the-minute sciences, he ultimately suspects their tendency to philosophical reductionism and to harmful technological application. One of Peter's first compositions used the closing sections of Whitman's "Song of Myself." Late in the novel, Powers has Peter return to those lines and identify with Whitman, an artist who welcomed the influence of sciences but finally celebrated the open road and open – but still inviolate – self. Whitman also nicely contributes to the panic and bacterial themes of "Orfeo," for one of the fearless poet's last lines, which Powers quotes twice, is: "If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles."
From Powers, a novel entitled "Orfeo" is no surprise. In "Galatea 2.2," a character points out that "Orphic Rewards" is an anagram of the author's name, and Powers mentions numerous operas about Orpheus in "The Time of Our Singing," his novel about African-American musicians. Think of Orpheus as an example of repetition and variation: he wanted to save Eurydice from the underworld and repeat their earthly love but failed because he looked back. Like Orpheus, many protagonists in Powers World are frustrated saviors in contemporary hells. The doctor and nurse in the inner-city hospital of "Operation Wandering Soul" try to save the lives of very sick children; the protagonists of "Generosity" attempt to prevent an unnaturally happy woman from exploitation by Faustian genetic engineers.
Peter is also a would-be savior, a foiler of death. He describes a youthful composition in both Orphic and Powers terms: "He borrowed from voices dead for centuries and made them chatter posthumously. And he repeated, recombined, and looped everything until the whole was wide enough to stretch from dawn to dusk." Discouraged by the tepid reception of his early music, Peter writes a song his daughter and wife love and thinks, "A dozen such tunes over the course of a career, and he might even have saved lives."
In the novel's present, Peter wants to somehow encode beautiful music in bacteria to save it and, more unlikely, save listeners from the barbaric noise constantly in their ears. In keeping with the principle of recombination, Peter's bacterium of choice – "Serratia marcescens. It looked like blood seeping out of old food" – was discovered by Pythagoras long ago. The red bacterium is also something of a red herring in the plot, which I won't spoil like the food.
The "Orphic Reward" of the novel is less in soteriological music than in Peter's cross-country journey: the mythic musician as senior citizen looking back on and attempting to make amends with loved ones – mostly women – from his past whom, like Eurydice, Peter betrayed or allowed to drift away from him. The protagonists in Powers World are usually younger than their creator. In "Orfeo" Powers adds a character 14 years his senior to the ever-increasing rogues gallery of guilty old men – such as William Gass's music professor in "Middle C" – that American novelists have been assembling in recent years. Powers has been criticized for imagining protagonists who do not "live" or who elicit little affect. If life is motion, as Faulkner said, Peter moves around and should move readers with his desires and regrets – but even more with his late-life spark and reconnections.
Powers has a novelist in "Generosity" say, "A story with no end or impediment is no story at all." "Orfeo" has one impediment and two endings. For readers without considerable knowledge of symphonic, chamber, and operatic music, Powers's descriptions of performances, both actual and invented by him for Peter, will be difficult, necessary to communicate Peter's passion but still an impediment the author attempts to finesse by describing listeners' emotional responses along with the structure of the music. Here is an example, Peter listening to Steve Reich's "Proverb" in a student café:
"The echoing lines slow to half speed, reprising the song's first measures. Augmentation, it was called once, worlds ago, before MIDI. The two-part canon turns into a trio. Choir-boy clarity thickens, then smears out as thin as gold leaf…. The couple at the next table freeze, alerted. The woman's soul is all up in her ears. The boy leans forward in a frightened crouch; someone is doing a thing better than he ever will."
More rewarding for the non-musical are Powers's reflections on music and animals, and numerous anecdotes about composers such as Shostakovich and Messiaen, who wrote music while facing a possible death sentence, or Harry Partch, a Whitmanian figure who composed in extreme poverty.
About the two endings: one is literal, the other figurative. From the beginning, very short texts in a different font seem dropped at random into the novel. They are sometimes statements readers can identify as Peter's, sometimes quotations that can be Googled, but only near the end of the novel do readers find out the source and occasion of these texts. Although they are not a fully developed alternative to the novel's plot and backstory, the micro-passages do introduce some of the dissonance and parallax of earlier books. And they are another example of bacterial replication as they geometrically increase when picked up by and spread across social media. Powers used a similar strategy of narrational concealment in "The Gold Bug Variations," where readers discover on the last page the actual producers of much of the text. The effect of this concealment in "Orfeo," for me at least, is rereading the novel from a new perspective and coming to the end a second time, another example of Powers's guiding principle of repetition and variation.
Powers uses the term coda in "Orfeo," and it seems to be a coda to the remarkable novels that precede it, as the last lines of "Song of Myself" are a coda, a leave-taking. In music, a coda ends a movement or piece and looks back on the composition. Another genetics-influenced novelist, John Barth, created a maximalist coda in his "LETTERS," his seventh novel, which includes characters from his previous six. Powers's coda is simpler and shorter, with the thick verisimilitude of "The Echo Maker" and "Generosity" thinned out to essentials of plot and character. Though Powers is not yet 60, the language he uses has the tension of what Edward Said called "the late style," a discord between still-passionate resistance to wisdom and a lean diction of resignation.
The ending of "Orfeo" may be the Orphic end of life for Peter, but we will have to wait for Powers's 12th novel to find out if "Orfeo" is a farewell to his nearly constant subjects of art and science. As an indirect "Song of Myself," Orfeo does summarize the author's conflicting motivations in his novelistic career, wanting early, like Peter in his 20s and 30s, to produce unique and therefore necessarily dissonant or difficult work but also wanting, like Peter as a youth and as an older man, to produce work that many might love.
"Orfeo" and the three novels that precede it tip toward increasing accessibility, and at least the National Book Award judges loved "The Echo Maker," and yet in "Orfeo" one also senses that the author has once more descended into Powers Underworld with the hope of finding a muse who would inspire him to create what may be impossible art, fiction both profound and popular.