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Richard Powers' "Orfeo"

A Musical Unibomber?

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Remember The Fugitive (the 1963-67 TV series and subsequent movie starring Harrison Ford) about Dr. Richard Kimble, falsely accused of murdering his wife?  Richard Powers’ mesmerizing new novel, Orfeo, shares a number of superficial similarities with Dr. Kimble’s story, based on an actual murder.  Peter Els, a seventy-year-old revered composer/academic, is accused of cooking up a dangerous pathogen in his kitchen that may be intended for some kind of terrorist act.  Just before men from the government can apprehend him, he takes flight, and his chase—with dozens of flashbacks to his earlier life—becomes the central narrative of this exquisite novel.  I say “exquisite” because although the chase is at the center of Powers’ story, Orfeo is more precisely about one man’s saga to create avant-garde musical compositions that will take music into directions it has never entered before.

Here’s the incredible opening of Powers’ novel.  When his fourteen-year-old dog, Fidelio, starts hemorrhaging, Els calls the county emergency services (911, presumably), but by the time they arrive, the dog is dead.  Still, the men from the rescue squad, tromp around Els’ kitchen, attempt to revive the animal, and eventually tell him that he needs to call Animal Control for disposal of the body.  After they leave, Els buries Fidelio (his “lab animal, his experiment in musical universals”) whom he had trained to recognize tonalities. Then a couple of days later, two men from the Joint Security Task Force visit him because the
Orfeo,_Richard_Powers,_covermen from the rescue squad told them about all of the lab materials in Els’ kitchen.  He’s questioned about “bacterial cultivation” and confesses that he’s been teaching himself cell biology. Their questioning response: “But you’re manipulating the DNA of a toxic organism?”

Els makes a number of errors in his cavalier response to their questions.  One of the officials points to a framed Arabic manuscript on the wall, “showing an old system of musical notation.”  That was after Els has glibly stated that studying genetics is easier than learning Arabic.  Then the men depart, taking some of Els’ equipment along with them, and they also tell him not to go anywhere.  Then, a day or two later, after he has been on campus where he’s taught for many years, and is returning home (but still a block or so away) he observes “Men in white helmets and hazmat suits,” carrying equipment out of his house.  Others in hazmat suits are digging up Fidelio.  He’s far enough away from his house that he isn’t noticed, so he eases his car in the opposite direction and flees. Orfeo may be about a musician’s lifelong career to break into new areas of musical composition, but it is just as much about the United States, post-9/11—the new world we have sanctioned, with the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, the increased surveillance of the individual as our freedoms and rights are taken over by the government.

As an undergraduate, Els was originally a chemistry major, until music took over his life and led to advanced degrees in musical composition.  If it’s difficult to be a successful writer in the United States, it’s much more difficult to become a composer.  For years, he says, there were “more people onstage than in  the audience,” at the performances of his compositions. Thus in his declining years, he decided to fuse the two main interests of his life, as he continues to search for inspiration in the entire world around him as he writes new compositions.

“Music is awareness flowing in through the ear.  And nothing is more terrifying than being aware.”  That he would eventually search for inspiration in chemistry, in DNA, and the fact that his experiments would be considered subversive to a hyperactive vigilant government attempting to prove to its citizens that terrorism can be prevented—both are inevitable.

As he will explain to a longtime friend whom he calls after he has begun his flight, “There were, in a single cell, astonishing synchronized sequences, plays of notes that made the Mass in B minor sound like a jump-rope jingle….”  I’ve “been trying to take a strand of DNA, five thousand base pairs long, ordered to spec from an online site, and splice it into a bacterial plasmid.”  Or, as he will subsequently tell his daughter, he’s been “biocomposing,”  “trying to put music files into living cells.”  He might eventually “send a tune abroad…into the very distant future, unheard, unknown, everywhere: music for the end of time.”

Orfeo is an elegant book, filled with vast swaths of music theory, the obsessional undertakings of a man who gave his heart and soul to pushing music into new dimensions.  As Els flees the men whom he realizes will put him in prison in order to use him as an example—as he realizes that everything is stacked against him—he also tries to repair some of the failed relationships he had with the people he once loved.  Visiting his long-time collaborator, his wife, and his daughter, his thoughts flow in and out of musical notation, transforming him into a modern-day Orpheus.

Orfeo is another major novel of the new year.

Richard Powers’ Orfeo.

Norton, 352 pp., $26.95.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.