Orfeo by Richard Powers, book review: Music, germs and a touch of genius


Jonathan Gibbs
Thursday 10 April 2014 16:51 BST
Deeply intelligent: Richard Powers
Deeply intelligent: Richard Powers

Richard Powers has written about classical music before (in The Time of Our Singing and The Gold Bug Variations) and about genetics (in Generosity, and Gold Bug again). Yet it would be rash to say that this new novel is his most complete exploration of those themes, if only because he will probably go ahead and write an even more complete one.

So I'll just say that this is the best novel about classical music that I've read since Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. There are passages that make you want to rush to your stereo, or download, particular pieces to listen to as you read — Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time — and others that seem to offer that same experience for pieces you will never hear, pieces composed by Powers's composer hero, Peter Els.

The book starts with Els, 70 years old and retired from music, panic-calling 911 because his beloved dog Fidelio has collapsed and died.Two police officers who call to check on him are spooked by the ominous-looking lab equipment he has accumulated for his hobby, the exploration of microbiological engineering, and the FBI quickly impound it.

Then, when there is an outbreak of bacterial infection in a hospital way down in Alabama that is worryingly close to the stuff Els had been cooking up, he panics again and goes on the run.

The escapades of this unlikely “Bioterrorist Bach” are inter-cut with Els's memories of his past life, in music and love, starting in the innocent post-War years and moving through the extravagances of the Sixties. There is something of John Adams in Els the composer — coming after the iconoclasm of John Cage and Steve Reich, he finds himself torn between tonality and innovation, wanting to make it new, but unable to resist a melody. He produces a Borges song cycle that has the musicians departing the stage one by one to leave the soprano baffled and alone; soundtracks for New York happenings; and eventually an opera based on the 16th-century siege of Münster that is doomed to obscurity until Waco pops up to explain it all.

The book is full of incident, both then and now, and there are sections of pages at a time when the prose seems to lift up and carry the reader as an orchestra might, the words working in perfect consort. Els jogging in the local woods the morning before his enforced road trip has him wondering about the young woman who keeps lapping him, then thinking how Mahler would have loved her mp3 player: “His symphonies, laced with tavern music and dance tunes, were like a vulgar playlist.”

We are still in the woods four pages later, when he is stopped in his tracks by a singing bird. “A thing no bigger than a child's fist was asserting a chord as brazen as any that a kid Mozart might pluck out.”

Orfeo is a deeply intelligent book, and, though it knows enough to make you care about its characters, its greatest achievement is to flatter the reader into thinking they care about — and understand — music and art too.

Jonathan Gibbs's novel 'Randall' is published in June

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