BY LARA BUXBAUM
The Greek myth of Orpheus, the ur-musician and poet, has been retold and rewritten numerous times in various forms and guises, indicating the rich literary and musical tradition on which this novel builds. Orpheus is only explicitly mentioned twice in the novel: in reference to Shostakovich and then to a computer compositional programme “that turns an average tunesmith into Orpheus”. Orfeo takes in the gamut of classical music in between, as well as in the centuries of innovation before.
Orfeo is Powers’s eleventh novel in a career which has earned him countless plaudits including the title of genius that comes with being awarded a MacArthur grant. In the novel’s “Overture”, Peter Els is an unlikely Orphic hero: a lonely, retired professor of composition who has been dabbling in cell-mutation, modifying the DNA of bacteria. In the climate of fear that is post-9/11 America, his home lab raises the suspicions of Homeland Security. Soon this quiet composer, who “had staked his life on finding that larger thing. Something magnificent and enduring hidden under music’s exhausted surface” is on the run, wanted as a bio-terrorist.
Interspersed by seemingly cryptic statements are two alternating narrative strands: one in the present tense and one that traces Els’s history, beginning with his first experience of musical enchantment. These all converge towards the novel’s conclusion. The careful structuring of the novel shows Powers’s compositional genius: themes repeat and ideas mutate extending the comparison of chemistry and music made throughout by Els.
The tone is elegiac, yet oddly hopeful, as Els believes in the “adamant, brute-beautiful songs of the young still to come.’’ It is not only Eurydice (in this case estranged rather than dead) whom this musician wants to rescue from the Underworld, but everything that is past, that has been lost. Powers himself exhumes archaic or dusty words and breathes life into them, while his protagonist, Els, “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 backwards into the future.” This, as Maurice Blanchot proposes in “The Gaze of Orpheus”, is the challenge facing all artists: to bring something back – from that “other night” of the Underworld – into the light of the present.
Orfeo is a dense and demanding book; it’s slow going at times, but this is not necessarily a criticism. Ruminations on musical posterity and dissident music are accompanied by long sections filled with complex musical jargon in which Els describes whatever he is listening to. There are brilliant set pieces, for example, a stirring 13-page lecture on Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and a virtuoso 10 pages describing the epiphanic experience of listening to Steve Reich’s Proverb which is playing on the speakers in a campus coffee shop to an oblivious audience. It’s heady stuff. No doubt some readers might find this frustratingly abstruse, and as with the avant-garde music Els composes, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the reading experience can be revelatory; the final third of the novel is simply breathtaking.
My copy of the book is filled with post-it notes where I’ve marked lines that seemed to sing, awed by Powers’s mastery at the level of the sentence. There are also moments of deadpan comedy and pithy observations on the changing cultural milieu: “A TV tilted from the wall like an altarpiece. … The headline news channel featured a pet care business that was booming in the advent of the Rapture, only weeks away.”
Music is not a prop or gimmick in Orfeo. It is the story. Throughout the changing trends in musical history that Els studies and lives through, there is a leitmotif, exemplified in a childhood call-and-response game he played with his daughter: the desire to “make something good.” Powers has clearly made something good in Orfeo.
Orfeo is published by Atlantic.