The question of where to begin with a review of Richard Powers’ 11th novel, Orfeo, is a complex one. Yet it parallels the question the book’s protagonist, Peter Els, must ask himself. He’s a 70-year-old retired adjunct professor of music, an avant-garde composer, and a self-taught hobbyist geneticist. Where to begin?
Perhaps with the ill-advised call to 911 following the death of his beloved dog that invites a pair of nosey police officers into his home. They can’t quite parse out the difference between a home lab with scientific glassware and the chiming cloud-chamber bowls Els has built in his living room. Intrigued, the officers return to snap incriminating photos of the suspicious septuagenarian’s home. Yet, in the end, it’s the framed manuscript of ancient musical notation that condemns Els: It’s written in Arabic. Cue Homeland Security.
This sets in motion the road-novel plot strand of Orfeo, where Els eludes authorities in a borrowed car and learns the infinite mysteries of iPhones and their ability to make a nearly inconceivable amount of recorded music accessible with a few taps of the forefinger. (He also learns about their connection to satellites; each press of its power button becomes a perilous exhibition of his precise location.) Powers has great fun navigating this 70-year-old across the expanse of America in a high-minded hot-pursuit narrative. Yet the distances traveled in Orfeo have little to do with miles traveled and everything to do with the origin of human yearning. As it turns out, Els’ tinkering with DNA (without spoiling the pleasure of the plot’s well-placed revelations) is to journey back to the essential stuff of life.
If all of this smacks of high-wire philosophical hokum, it bears noting that Powers’ Orfeo is one fantastically fun read. For one, it’s a thriller with a wanted man on the run, peppered with social and political critique, intrigue, near misses, and a hero to root for. As Els’ road-weary wistfulness unlocks germs of memory, there are flashback tales of his eccentric pal and theater celebrity Richard Bonner, who swoops in with mad ideas, rescuing Els from perils both monetary and marital over the course of their lifelong friendship. The duo creates operas with such impossibly impractical set designs, described with just the right flourish, to make the reader pine for their actual production. The sight of his firstborn elicits from Els a revelation, “This perfect, working creature, self-assembling, self-delighting, the brightest whim that could ever exist, and he’ll never make anything to compare to her for pure wonder.”
Before Els’ flight from justice, he conducts a class at a senior center, describing the miraculous composition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps, his voice accompanying the swells of music, describing the improbability of its very existence as the movements fill the fluorescent-lit communal room. The only justifiable reason to interrupt reading this particular passage would have to be to immediately purchase and download the recording. Throughout much of Orfeo, in fact, Powers becomes an unwitting tastemaker nonpareil, as nearly every page contains passages of acrobatic music writing that will have even the most timid listener queuing up a stream of Steve Reich’s “Proverb” before novel’s end.
But for what, after all, is Peter Els so madly in pursuit? At one point he ponders, “How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul?” Els might be on the run, but his mad dash is backward, into the tiniest particle perceived by man, to find the music in the smallest sphere. This, in a sense, is also the work of a novelist. With Orfeo, Powers has strung together the largest, oldest ideas about being human and creating art. And somewhere inside the mess of living in this sped-up information age of impatient artlessness, he has found a kind of enduring harmony in spite of it all.