Book reivew: Orfeo by Richard Powers


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The Independent Culture

Richard Powers's much-lauded fiction has something of George Eliot's Casaubon about it. Forbiddingly clever, its restless forms strive to offer a Unified Theory of Everything, joining the dots between maths, biology, computing, music, art, nature and literature. Powers seeks a key, not just to all mythologies, but to existence itself.

In this, Peter Els, Orfeo's central protagonist, is a Powers novel made flesh. Not simply a misunderstood avant-garde composer (think John Cage but with too many notes), he also dabbles in DNA research. Such is Els's expertise, or sheer bad luck, that as Orfeo begins Homeland Security is raiding his home-made lab. Re-christened as the "Biohacker Bach" by the media, he goes on the run - literally across America, but figuratively across the contours of his own life and times.

Els's flight, both inner and outer, weighs a lifetime's struggle to resolve contraries: art and life, tradition and originality, past and present. Els's road-trip is a getaway doubling as a last-gasp pilgrimage to his ex-wife, Maddy, his fractious brother-in-provocation, Richard Bonner, and, finally, his beloved, but betrayed daughter, Sara.

Orfeo is something of an acquired taste. The first chapters felt less like opening movements than the sound of an orchestra tuning up. Els would doubtless approve, but Powers' pursuit of a sonorous lyricism takes some getting used to. When Els notes that "Life traded in a profligate overkill that never failed to stun him", he might be thinking of Powers' purpler prose.

At the same time, few novelists can have written so evocatively about music as Powers does. Orfeo's central conceit - that music spreads unpredictably like a virus from human to human - is expressed by a structure that moves elegantly across time, transported by a series of echoing motifs. The use of Twitter is inspired, crystallising our hero's own divided nature: Els's narcissistic Postmodern desire to make new from old, and his Romantic sensibility that soars besides images of birds, flight and song.

Powers' real stroke of genius is to end with a frankly heart-breaking finale between Els and his daughter. Their simple see-saw between love and disappointment brings tears to the eyes. In doing so, it intensifies the battle between the intellect and the emotions for Els's very soul. Orfeo is extraordinary and confounding, mind-spinning and wonderful. Just what a proper novel should be.