Toward the beginning of “Orfeo,” the engrossing new novel by Richard Powers, we’re told that over the past 40 years Americans have lost about a third of their ability to pay attention. (Are you still with me?) “The country’s collective concentration was simply shot,” Powers writes. “People couldn’t hold a thought or pursue a short-term goal for anywhere near as long as they could a few years before.”
If you’re a certain kind of writer — say, a MacArthur “genius” who publishes cerebral novels about genetics and classical music — this “chronic focal difficulty” among your potential readers poses an existential threat. But Powers knows enough about Darwin to make a play for survival. It’s tempting to consider “Orfeo,” with its striking vignettes and propulsive storyline, as a product of self-conscious literary evolution. Fans who surmounted “The Gold Bug Variations” (1991) and smirked at anyone who couldn’t hack the story’s refracted complexities will be disappointed that Powers’s new novel returns to some of the same themes in a far more accessible form.
Of course, accessibility — like genetics — is all relative. “Orfeo” is hardly a title that sells itself, but Orpheus, the celebrated musician of Greek mythology, is the perfect motif for this fascinating novel about the allure and power of music.
The story comes to us in two different melodies with two very different tempos. The opening sounds almost comically noir: A muffled call to 911 — “then the line goes dead”! The scene turns sad and sweet: Peter Els, an avant-garde composer in his 70s, lives alone in a Pennsylvania college town. His old golden retriever has just died; he wasn’t sure whom else to call. The police officers who arrive are sympathetic . . . until they spot “shelves swelled with beakers, tubing, and jars with printed labels.” One of the officers asks, “What are all the petri dishes for?”
That nervous question launches the novel. Forced into retirement a few years earlier, Peter has taken up a strange hobby: DIY genetic engineering. (Powers was one of the first people on Earth to have his genome sequenced — way back in the Dark Ages of 2008.) Rapid advances in sequencing techniques along with plummeting prices for computers and lab equipment have cultivated a golden age for biology hobbyists, but in the Age of Terror, fiddling with bacteria is a suspicious pastime. And Peter’s cagey responses to the police don’t help. Within hours, his house is being dismantled by men from Homeland Security in hazmat suits, and Peter is on the run, dubbed “Biohacker Bach” by the hysterical cable news channels.
What this fugitive storyline lacks in plausibility, it makes up for with keen social commentary about the government’s duplicity and the media’s gullibility. As Powers dramatizes so effectively, in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the threat of terrorism has mutated into a virus that’s toxic to civil rights — or even common sense. While corporations manipulate genetic material and rush to patent DNA sequences, the public remains largely in the 19th century: scientifically illiterate, prone to alarm, terrified of Frankenfoods. Peter is quickly blamed for a spate of deaths in hospitals and retirement homes (where people have been known to die even without the diabolical influence of terrorists).
That present-day story could grow polemic (and melodramatic) if Powers weren’t so sparing with it. Even as Peter, “the deranged Pennsylvania bioterrorist,” flees west across a paranoid country, the narrative constantly drifts back into his past, telling the tale of his life through the music he loved and composed. There are spellbinding historical set-pieces, such as the creation of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” in a German prisoner-of-war camp and Shostakovich’s daring response to Stalin’s criticism. We follow Peter’s education from the treasures of the classical era through the 1960s when “European postwar weirdness, American pop ballads, magnetic tape, advertising ditties, and gnarly microtones all collided in one big free-for all.” In that dazzling cacophony, “Peter Els embraced his panic and thrilled to realize that he might be free to make anything at all.” That ambition lures him into “the lavish anarchy” of the late 20th century, and Powers harmonizes his fictional characters with the major movements and composers of the era. This is music history that sings.
Be forewarned: Even if you check “Orfeo” out of the library, it will still cost you a fortune. (Why couldn’t this novel come with a set of CDs?) From Mozart’s “Jupiter” to George Rochberg’s “String Quartets” and Harry Partch’s “Barstow” and John Cage’s “Concerto for Prepared Piano,” I’ve never bought so many tracks in a single week. Admittedly, some of the pieces struck my unsophisticated ear as noise, but the money kept running out of me prestissimo.
And beware thick patches of music theory and critical commentary in these pages. In one typical passage, Peter “wants to use regions of cycling pitch groups to create forward motion without resorting to the cliches of standard harmonic expectation, but without falling into serialism’s dead formality.” Yeah, me too.
Mercifully, such moments are rare — just enough to convince us that he’s a serious student — and the novel compensates for its technical language with the poignancy of Peter’s aspirations. “Orfeo” remains the story of one man’s artistic dreams and romantic missteps, a symphonic expansion of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” Slowly, we come to understand Peter and his lifelong desire to create music that will live — and outlive him. Thinking of the people he loves, he says, “All I ever wanted was to make one slight noise that might delight you all.” But there’s a bassline of selfishness beneath that benevolent tone. For Peter, music is a mistress that will tolerate no rivals, no distractions, and only too late does he realize what horrible personal sacrifices he’s made to reify the sounds in his mind, to pursue “the mystery of organized vibrations” that could “trick the body into thinking it had a soul.”
That desire ultimately finds expression in Peter’s efforts to encode melodies in the nucleotides of simple bacteria. As a medium of composition, that sounds mad, but in the context of this man’s desperation to inscribe music on the fabric of life, it’s profound and lovely — and, yes, a little mad, but aren’t all serious artists? “Here was the one durable medium,” he thinks, “one that might give any piece a shot at surviving until alien archaeologists came by to determine what had happened to the wasted Earth.” As he reviews the measures of his life and the FBI closes in, that grandiose vision can’t absolve him. Long before he started fiddling with DNA, the intensity of his desire to create transcendent sounds made him a distant husband and a poor father, and now he knows the time for making amends is running out. “I wanted awe,” Peter thinks, “surprise . . . suspense . . . a sense of the infinite . . . beauty.”
He may not have reached those heights, but Powers has, once again.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. On Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Richard Powers
Norton. 369 pp. $26.95