Orfeo by Richard Powers, very loosely based on the myth of Orpheus, is an ambitious novel. It tells the story of seventy-year-old Peter Els, a musician and amateur biochemist, who turns his home into a microbiology lab in an attempt to tease musical patterns into living bacteria. When Homeland Security discovers his project and suspects him of nefarious activities, Els turns fugitive. Accused of bio-terrorism, he becomes an Internet sensation as he zig-zags across the country to evade capture. The narrative constantly shifts from the present to Els’ long ago and more recent past in a series of vignettes or anecdotes. Throughout it all, Els’ all-consuming love of music governs his relationships and his life.
The constant shifts in chronological time coupled with the many threads that weave in and out make this a challenging read. Complicating the narrative even further are the constant references to music history, music theory, musical compositions, and the back story that gave rise to these compositions. Els seems to operate on a different level where even the sounds in nature and in everyday life are fodder for his musical ears and where he sees the intersection of music with science everywhere he looks.
Els reads musical compositions as narratives, describing the ebb and flow, the interludes, the highs and lows as elements of a story. Although the back stories of the musical compositions were fascinating, the technicalities of each musical piece maybe lost on someone who has no background in music theory or composition.
The novel explores the role art plays in our lives: its function, how and where it intersects with our lives, how it is perceived, and how it informs our lives. It is a complex novel dealing with complex themes. Powers’ pure joy in music permeates the novel as does his extensive knowledge of music. But perhaps one criticism of the novel is his assumption that the reader shares this knowledge. Without some background in music theory and composition, a reader can get lost in his discussion of B minor and E flat, in octaves and harmonies, scales and keys.
The novel is recommended, but especially for individuals who love classical music and who are familiar with music theory and composition.