Our Town Books Reviews: Orfeo

OrfeoThis book review originally appeared in the Jacksonville newspaper, The Source.

By Richard Powers
384 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Goaded by curiosity and opportunity, I once asked a concert pianist if he heard music in the sounds of everyday life. I was thinking a musician might hear the rhythm of a clothes washer on its spin cycle or the clink of glasses being unloaded from the dishwasher more thoughtfully and musically than the average person does.

“No,” he told me in a way that didn’t encourage further exploration of the subject. “No, I do not.”


No doubt his definition of music was more demanding than mine. Or perhaps he just didn’t spend as much time around household appliances. At any rate, I thought of him again while reading Richard Powers’ latest novel, Orfeo, which is replete with sentences like “His desk drawer squeak turns into a tone poem and the hinge of his dorm room door soars like a Heldentenor.”

The musician in Powers’ novel, seventy-year-old adjunct professor Peter Els, composes avant-garde music—and, we soon discover, is also wanted by Homeland Security as a bioterrorist. An unlikely combination you might think, bioterrorism and musical composition, but Powers makes it work–just as he made bird migration and neuropsychology work in his National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker.

In Peter Els’ retirement he has taken up an odd hobby: at-home genetic engineering. With the dream of inserting a phrase of music into a living organism, he begins experimenting with bacteria, buying lab equipment and materials on the internet. His hope is to “…make his great song of the Earth at last—music for forever and for no one.” When the police accidentally discover his kitchen laboratory, his innocent and no doubt naïve experiment arouses their suspicions. They call in Homeland Security. Els panics and flees. The retired professor is no longer the biocomposer he hoped to be; he’s now a hunted fugitive, known and feared nationwide as Biohacker Bach.

In full flight he travels–not just cross-country in his Fiat and certainly not to the underworld as Orpheus of the book’s title did–but back through his memories, revisiting the people and music he once loved. We travel with him and as we do, we journey through the history and hear the sounds of modern music: Mahler, John Cage and Harry Partch. We relive Messiaen’s days in a German concentration camp where he composed his “Quartet for the End of Time.”

But most of all, we move inside the music: “The notes condense, incandescent. Shifting harmonies blaze into an old man’s head. Layered parts swell and fall, split and multiply, collide and detonate, filling a life too small to hold them.”

Bioterrorism, musical composition, and Homeland Security in a post-911 world?
In any theme, Richard Powers’ words sing.

(Reviewed by Sally Nurss)


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