home Arts & Literature, Books, Europe, Feature, North America From the Booker Longlist: Richard Powers’ Orfeo

From the Booker Longlist: Richard Powers’ Orfeo

“Someone hums a muted tune, a lullaby from another planet. Then the line goes dead.”

Insofar as this year’s Booker longlist has a theme or themes (other than “Life! What does it all MEAN!” which every longlist ever always canvasses), it might be said to be something around the relationship between art and life. Or, perhaps, bearing in mind the plots of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, The Wake and The Dog, I should broaden that to be “the relationship between what we can represent and what makes us human”. While I haven’t finished Howard Jacobson’s J yet, that wouldn’t be an inaccurate precis of it either at this early juncture. The Blazing World is, of course, front and centre about visual art (and the performance of gender), while reliable leaks have Ali Smith’s book, How to be Both, traversing similar territory.

Richard Powers’ Orfeo sits comfortably within this loose family, adopting music as its artistic lens within which to tell a life story that is remarkably engrossing, gentle, and lovely. You would not necessarily expect this on reading the publisher’s precis, which makes a great deal of the catalyst for the road trip taken by the protagonist, Peter Els – a suspicion that he is a bioterrorist, which leads in turn to a manhunt.

I keep seeing this book described as a thriller by reviewers and it makes me wonder if they read the same book I did. Sure, Powers sparingly and cleverly points at the paranoia of the post-911 world, and the loss of benefit of doubt that renders our world paradoxically illusorily safer for the herd while infinitely more dangerous for individuals. There’s no doubt some good and salient points being made under this general heading throughout. But that is not at all, I would contend, what this book is about, or really what it’s even trying to say.

To me, while the bioterrorism angle is indeed the jumping-off point for the largely retrospective tale, it really isn’t the focus of it at all. No one could possibly be in any actual apprehension about the beautiful Els and his motives, reading this book; all the bioterrorism angle does is provides an impetus for Peter to start moving and keep moving, start remembering and keep remembering, start thinking and keep thinking, and that is what gives this otherwise potentially directionless amble its motor.

Orfeo is Els’ life story, and Els is a composer – a not hugely successful one, a teacher of music at the end of his life, but a dreamer of dreams nonetheless, a man whose entire life and sense of self is inextricably bound up in the music he hears and the music he can’t quite hear. His relationships (with his brother, the quixotic Clara, his wife Maddy, his best friend Richard, his daughter Sara) are profoundly shaped, perhaps distorted, by his lifelong love affair with music. His hopes, dreams, visions, fantasies, his entire worldview, is understood through music and what it can, on occasion, inspire.

The depth of musical knowledge embedded in this book is quite intense, and there are entire floating passages written in close to musical notation that could have run the risk of being impenetrable instead of atmospheric. (Sometimes they miss by a hair’s breadth, but miss they do). Yet there are other parts of the musical story that are  highly engaging; Els’ life in the experimental music / composing scene in Indiana, and particularly the description of the huge festivals of cacophony that is music-beyond-music, is incredibly lively and vivid. And the loving, passionate and compassionate descriptions of all the pieces! I have never read a novel that cost me as much in downloaded music as this one. I am not sure what Powers’ own background is, but if he is not himself a musician, he is an incredible mimic, capturing a dizzying range of knowledge and feeling.

Caught in among the music, and the catalyst for the plot, is Els’ parallel fascination with the sciences of life. An early aptitude for chemistry – the career road not taken – is converted in late life into a genetics and biology exploration journey, which is the road that leads him to his home / hobbyist bacterial experimentation with serrata marcescens, the mostly harmless (but not completely harmless) little organism that leads Els into putative bioterrorism.

While Powers explicitly ties up the home genetics with Els’ music (it emerges that he has been experimenting with trying to encode music in the very DNA of the teeming serrata, which sounds at once spectacularly implausible and also wonderful), there is a deeper thematic link between music and science that is allowed to unfold gently.

Without belabouring the point, Powers allows us to see that the same drives that direct us towards transcendence through music also find satisfaction in the minutiae of life, in the building blocks of all that is material. Humans, Powers notes, are pattern seekers. We crave pattern, we create meaning from it, even if none may exist. Science and music call on the same skills and satisfy fundamentally related urges in the human psyche. Of course Els, the scientist / composer, is the quintessence of this idea, but the plot circles it several times and through several different characters.

Ultimately, this is a lovely book – intelligent, gentle, engrossing, enlightening. Unlike some of the other books on this year’s longlist, its trajectory doesn’t feel forced, its insights don’t seem trite. If music be the food of life, play on! Or, perhaps, from Els’ The Great Wall songs:

“You do not need to leave your room.
Only sit at your table and listen.

Don’t even listen:
simply wait, be quiet,
still and solitary.

The world will offer itself to be unmasked.
It has no choice;
it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”