In­ter­play of mu­sic, sci­ence and per­cep­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

Or­feo

By Richard Pow­ers At­lantic, 384pp, $29.99 RE­VIEW­ING The Echo Maker, Richard Pow­ers’s 2006 novel about neu­rol­ogy, iden­tity and ter­ror­ism, Mar­garet At­wood com­pared the au­thor’s breadth of vi­sion with that of Her­man Melville, declar­ing “his pic­ture re­ally is that big”.

At­wood’s point was twofold. On the one hand, the com­par­i­son sought to tease out the scope and am­bi­tion of Pow­ers’s fic­tion, the de­gree to which its hori­zons ex­ceeded those of al­most ev­ery other lit­er­ary writer to­day. But it also re­ferred to his rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity, draw­ing a par­al­lel be­tween it and the fail­ure of Moby-Dick to find an au­di­ence within Melville’s life­time.

Whether Pow­ers’s new novel, Or­feo, is the book to change the lat­ter sit­u­a­tion is an open ques­tion. Cer­tainly it de­serves to: it is rare to come across a book as mov­ing or as thrillingly alive to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the con­tem­po­rary sci­en­tific and cul­tural land­scape. Yet the same may be said of any of the Amer­i­can writer’s nov­els, and still his au­di­ence re­mains small.

Like many of Pow­ers’s nov­els, Or­feo is wo­ven to­gether from three sep­a­rate nar­ra­tives, all cen­tring on Peter Els, a 70-year-old avant­garde com­poser liv­ing in re­tire­ment in Penn­syl­va­nia. The first, a fram­ing nar­ra­tive set in 2011,

May 3-4, 2014 be­gins with the death of Els’s dog, an event that leads through a mo­ment of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion to a visit from the po­lice. Dis­cov­er­ing Els has buried his dog him­self, in­stead of de­liv­er­ing its body to An­i­mal Care and Con­trol, two of­fi­cers in­vite them­selves into his home, where they dis­cover Els’s lat­est project, a home biotech lab de­signed to al­low him to splice mu­si­cal se­quences into the DNA of bac­te­ria. Un­nerved, the po­lice call in agents of the Joint Se­cu­rity Task Force and the sit­u­a­tion rapidly es­ca­lates, leading to an un­set­tling in­ter­view with govern­ment agents and, soon af­ter, the ar­rival of men in haz­mat suits.

De­spite the weight­less brevity of the prose, these early scenes are deeply dis­com­fit­ing in their de­pic­tion of the speed with which sus­pi­cions be­come pre­sump­tions, trans­form­ing in­no­cent — or at least naive — de­tails and ac­tions into some­thing much more sin­is­ter.

This pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the ap­pa­ra­tus of the se­cu­rity state is not a new con­cern in Pow­ers’s fic­tion, lin­ger­ing in the back­ground of The Echo Maker’s de­pic­tion of the shadow selves and para­noia that en­cir­cle brain in­jury. Yet in Or­feo it is given an im­me­di­acy it has not had be­fore. For when Els — for rea­sons he him­self does not en­tirely un­der­stand — de­cides to flee, he finds him­self the sub­ject of a na­tion­wide man­hunt.

Al­though there is a de­gree of nar­ra­tive ex­pe­di­ency ev­i­dent in the se­quence of events that lead to Els’s flight, Pow­ers’s por­trait of the me­dia firestorm that en­gulfs Els is ter­ri­fy­ingly plau­si­ble. Dubbed the Biohacker Bach, Els finds his life and work raked over in the press and on so­cial me­dia for in­crim­i­nat­ing de­tails: he is no longer a com­poser work­ing on con­cep­tual mu­sic but some­thing more like a mu­si­cal Un­abomber, the sub­ject of pieces in The New York Times psy­cho­analysing his “bio­hack­ing by con­sid­er­ing his decades of au­di­ence-hos­tile avant­garde cre­ations”.

On the run, Els be­gins a jour­ney back through his past, un­pack­ing the story of his life and vis­it­ing his ex-wife, for­mer friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor, and even­tu­ally his daugh­ter as he heads west­ward across the coun­try. This sec­ond nar­ra­tive strand, which in­cor­po­rates ex­tended dis­qui­si­tions on Mahler, Mes­si­aen’s Quar­tet for the End of Time and sev­eral other works, is then com­ple­mented by a third, an enig­matic string of pro­nounce­ments in­ter­spersed be­tween the other two (“I wanted to be­lieve that mu­sic was the way out of all pol­i­tics. But it’s only an­other way in … Life is noth­ing but mu­tual in­fec­tion. And ev­ery in­fect­ing mes­sage changes the mes­sage it in­fects”).

As al­ways, part of the plea­sure of Pow­ers’s fic­tion is the ef­fort­less way it elides the boundary be­tween the real and the imag­i­nary, wheth- er in its of­ten rap­tur­ous de­scrip­tion of the sci­en­tific un­der­pin­nings of Els’s ex­per­i­ments or in its de­scrip­tions of his com­po­si­tions.

Yet in a way these pro­cesses are sec­ondary to the novel’s larger in­ter­est in emer­gent or­der and pat­tern­ing, the in­ter­play be­tween mu­sic and sci­ence, and mu­sic and mind (“to Els mu­sic and chem­istry were each other’s long-lost twins: mix­tures and mod­u­la­tions, spec­tral har­monies and har­monic spec­troscopy”) and fi­nally, and per­haps most im­por­tant, the way life, mean­ing and mind are all pro­cesses of be­com­ing, con­stantly in flux.

These are ques­tions Pow­ers has ex­plored be­fore, whether in the ex­tra­or­di­nary im­ages of the gath­er­ing of sand­hill cranes on the wet­lands of the Amer­i­can mid­west that book­end The Echo Maker or the play­ful de­bates about neu­ro­chem­istry and self in his 2009 novel Gen­eros­ity, yet in Or­feo they take on new and of­ten sur­pris­ing form, sug­gest­ing new con­nec­tions and new ways of see­ing.

Like Gen­eros­ity, Or­feo is self-con­sciously con­cerned with the ques­tion of the place of art (and in­deed beauty) in a cul­ture in which the past has been sub­sumed by the ver­tig­i­nous now, a ques­tion as per­ti­nent to fic­tion as it is to clas­si­cal mu­sic. Yet it is a mea­sure of this mar­vel­lous novel’s ac­com­plish­ment that, rather than look back to the past, Pow­ers seeks to em­brace the mul­ti­plic­ity and won­der of the fu­ture. James Bradley is a writer and critic. He blogs at city­oftongues.com.

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