Interplay of music, science and perception
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.