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Book Review: Bravado to Richard Powers “Orfeo”

During my childhood and teenage years, I was deeply entrenched in the musings of classical music and orchestra as a violist. Although I wasn’t reading the literary greats of our time during high school, I tried picking up novels with a sprinkle of classical music to feel at home with while reading.

Unsurprisingly, my disappointment grew as I read book after book with classical thrown into lazily. As I recall, I used to physically cringe at the elementary descriptions and minimal understanding of what makes a symphony good to the listener while reading some of those disappointing novels.

But all my previous trepidations were flung out the window when I cracked open Richard Powers’ 2014 powerhouse novel, “Orfeo.” Adding to the list of eccentric protagonists Powers is known for, we follow the life and music of avant-garde composer Peter Els in his own Orpheus journey (hence the title) to create legendary, transcendent music by revisiting key people, turning points and music in his past.

Els’ seemingly mundane life as a retired professor and composer is upended once the FBI come knocking at his door. After combining his passions of music and chemistry in genetic engineering experiments to implant music into bacterial cells, Els is branded a bioterrorist–nicknamed “Biohacker Bach” and goes on the run.

In true Powers fashion, the novel blurs the line between the past and present by guiding readers through Els’ key memories and the stories behind the compositions that shaped his trascendental desires. Powers’ mastery of writing complicated subjects without passages falling flat or becoming info dumps is enviable to writers everywhere.

There is something sublime about an author who can weave the wonders and mysteries of music flawlessly onto paper. I found myself listening to many of the compositions entwined into the story, like Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” the same way Powers describes them–with utter reverence for the artistry and stories behind them. The history behind the quartet’s first performance in a Nazi POW camp and its rich description illustrates how inherently politcal art is throughout history.

Much of Powers’s questions regarding music and it’s transcendence can apply to the entirety of the fine arts. As a fellow artist, the search for an original story can be disheartening, considering all the stories of the world have already been written and we are simply reinterpreting every story. This relentless drive for originality and transcendence is perfectly depicted in Els’ cycle of sacrificing his family to compose something deemed eternal and new to the world. As Powers states, “All my music ever wanted was to tunnel into forever through the wall of Now.’

“Orfeo” deserves a standing ovation for its masterfulness and hitting all the right notes in literature. Artists everywhere can find themselves somewhere within this novel and understand the unstoppable search for newness and transcendence in our work.

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