'Orfeo,' richly told, details our culture of fear
By Richard Powers
Reviewed by John Domini
Orfeo displays all the excellences for which Richard Powers is celebrated.
The novel's erudition, from microbial science to the musical avant-garde, will take your breath away, and its canvas proves likewise capacious, with one episode in a Nazi prison camp and another at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Splendid stuff, yes - but let's take a moment for style.
In the prison camp, Powers tells the story of a quartet composed there and dubs the piece "birdsong's answer to the war." Later, when his protagonist brainstorms about the Met show, "[A] thought drifted through ... like a crane across a Chinese landscape painting." The bird leitmotif neatly dovetails, so to speak, with the concern for making music. But beyond the conceptual fit is the beauty of its expression. Orfeo, titled after a Monteverdi opera and, of course, a mythic maestro, has passages that rise to ecstasy. Its descriptions mushroom, transforming grit to psalms. Consider this coffee-shop crowd, indifferent to the music on the speakers, a tour de force by Steve Reich:
The raucous café - industrial frother jet on the espresso machine, clink of mugs and cups from the kitchen, laughter and shouted politics from the back room's upper loft - has no need of forever. Half the clientele have their own earbuds, the other half use this music, if at all, only as protection from the terrors of silence.
The word terrors, itself, seems spot-on. For all its talk about international high culture, the book has everything to do with the current culture of fear here in the States. The opening pages set us in a Pennsylvania college town in "the 10th year of the altered world," and thereafter, events depend on those alterations: the "panicked ... nation" post-9/11. Orfeo is the closest Powers has come to a political novel. The Time of Our Singing (2002) addressed American race relations, but none of his previous dramas was so engaged - not to say outraged - by issues of the moment.
His protagonist might even be called a "rebel," though it's hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate. A good-humored near-hermit of 70, Peter Els has a musical gift that has gotten him nowhere, and a mind that's always Els-where. Now retired from teaching, he has little to do but listen and think, and that think provides the arias about cutting-edge music of the 20th century. Yet, while this man understands how art whittles away at convention, he has trouble with the norms of his own place and time. The story's "overture" shows him puttering around a home lab, cooking up cell cultures. The question of just what he's up to hangs over much of Orfeo, but it only takes a thoughtless phone call for Els to fall under suspicion of bioterrorism. The effect veers between nightmare and farce (for instance, a dog that howls along to Mahler), but soon he winds up a fugitive from Homeland Security.
What follows combines the old man's week on the run, and his ruminations on how he got into this mess. Slowly, the twinned story lines unpack the mystery of his dabbling in beakers and petri dishes. Part of the motive proves to be his spotty contributions in music. Els' work tended to draw "more people onstage than in the audience," and this has left his marriage shot, his daughter at arm's length, his closest friend no longer speaking to him. The biography has moments of ecstasy, but its wounds and failures feel inevitable. They feel like classic Americana, and, indeed, the fugitive trail runs east to west.
Along the way, Orfeo never loses its element of farce. In the coffee shop, Els all but forgets about the Men in Black, as he swoons over Steve Reich. Then, too, his road trip delivers him to rapprochements with people who matter, and to an ingenious act of rebellion, an imaginative leap beyond all but a few artists in any medium.
In this medium, the novel, Don DeLillo used to be the American we relied on for cold-eyed brilliance about our "altered world." Now, Richard Powers has taken over the job, alert to every fresh crack in the former reality. Yet as he details these, in his two latest narratives, he embraces a new playfulness and teases out unexpected glimmers of possibility.
Richard Powers: "Orfeo" and Wendy Lesser: "Why I Read"
7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St. Free.
Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authorevents.
John Domini's latest novel is "A Tomb on the Periphery." He has a selection of criticism, "The Sea-God's Herb," due in May, and his story sequence "Movieola!" will appear in 2015.