Richard Powers wastes no words establishing the musical motifs of Orfeo, his enthralling—elegiac, funny, pensive, anxious—eleventh novel. Following the opera-referencing title, he commits to a first line, “An overture, then:,” and an italicized two-page setting:
Lights blaze from an American Craftsman home in a demure neighborhood, late on a spring evening, in the tenth year of the altered world. Shadows dance against the curtains: a man working late, as he has every night that winter, in front of shelves filled with glassware….But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He’s never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.
Despite the explicit musicality, readers will likely pick up the unmistakably cinematic qualities of these pages. They might just perceive an establishing shot. Powers begins small, with solitary Peter Els working at home in his demure neighborhood. Within a few pages, however, the author has broadened his scope considerably.
In fact, with the interwoven narrative strands of Orfeo, Powers writes an idiosyncratic but passionate history of what Laurie Anderson facetiously called “that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music” via the recollections of his thoughtful hero; he sketches the memoir-like recollections of this “naive and misguided” septuagenarian’s life-long embrace of obscure “audience-hostile avant-garde creations” (and the tremendous personal costs of this devotion); and he launches that same “gray-haired moving violation” on a westward quest toward withered relationships (with an ex-wife, a daughter, and a fellow artist) that winds down on a desert interstate outside of Barstow, California—a pit stop between Vegas and LA, of course, and a key moment of composer Harry Partch’s Americana series from the 1940s.
Showcasing an impressive talent for plot juggling and genre splicing, Powers also introduces a Hollywood mechanism to set the story in motion, borrowing from what trade publications label an “actioner”: a good guy, the elderly Els, finds himself outside the law and on the lam, with dark-suited men with access to the immense power of technologically advanced government agencies in pursuit. He’s Harrison Ford in The Fugitive (or Presumed Innocent, or Frantic) with a soupcon of Will Smith struggling against surveillance-happy operatives in Enemy of the State. With one declaration—“We’ve received a report about bacterial cultures in the house”—from an “overdressed duo from the Joint Security Task Force,” Powers ushers in the last burst of an eccentric composer’s creativity. Within all of these intersecting narrative parts Powers embeds a wealth of disturbing detail. They’re roadside, abundantly evident right outside his car window. And they’re broadcast from TV screens everywhere.
Orfeo’s America feels at once depleted and chaotic and portentous, not so much post-apocalyptic as on-the-verge-of-apocalypse (a state familiar from Powers’ own corpus, as well as that of Margaret Atwood, William Gibson, and Phillip K. Dick). Tilting “between the key of hope and the atonal slash of nothingness,” for example, Els stops at a “gas station run by a company that recently put five million barrels of oil into the Gulf”; he walks along convenience store “aisles of saturated fats and corn syrup” before finding a “shelf of omegas and antioxidants, stranded through some demographic miscalculation”; he visits a “parking lot of a mall the size of a breakaway Balkan state”; disliking “the gray, flat, fake, cardboard worlds of TV,” he watches a “famous ideologue adulterer-embezzler with his own nationally distributed brand [stick] pins into the groin of a presidential voodoo doll for the entertainment of thirty million people”; and comes to realize he’s “just the next consumer-friendly dose of distraction for people who’re bored by halftime spectacles.” His world, which began with the horrors of WWII and a place “where the times would never be normal again,” throbs with terrors—a Libyan no-fly zone, Fukushima radiation, chronic focal difficulty, lifeless strip malls, gutted phone booths, “a holocaust of birds,” snooping mechanical drones, an economic system that’s “over the financial brink.” Of this “altered world” Els notes: “Collapses of phytoplankton and fish populations and honeybee hives, bedbugs and cyberworms, obesity and killer flu: life was awash in too many disorders to pay any one of them more than a few minutes’ mind.”
The anatomy of contemporary society aside, each of the novel’s elements proves intriguing. Although it’s erudite and whimsical, the author gives his layered story an effective immediacy.
And Els, an Internet sensation renamed the Biohacker Bach—and momentarily the “most famous living composer” when his DIY experiments with bacteria (“I was trying to put music files into living cells,” he explains) become linked to homegrown terrorism—is a particularly intriguing elder spokesman. A latter-day Platonist, his holy (if monomaniacal) search via music for re-enchantment and a “shortcut to the sublime” has defined the trajectory of a difficult chosen life. Still composing—via Twitter—in the novel’s lovely closing pages, this philosopher of “the mystery of organized vibrations,” who is a network of contradictory impulses, displays the heartbreaking qualities of human nature. This despairing curmudgeon, offers a glimmer a hope that the capability to learn and self-correct is included among our hardwired characteristics. As a tour guide through the here and now, Peter Els is a natural.