With 'Orfeo,' Richard Powers Turns in a Virtuoso Performance

According to Greek mythology, Orpheus was the greatest of all musicians. The sounds he coaxed from the strings of his lyre were said to charm animals and even awaken stones to dance.

Still, the story of Orpheus is mostly remembered for his mad quest to save his wife, Eurydice, from the clutches of death itself. His tragic songs swayed the king of Hades to let Eurydice follow her husband out of the underworld and return to the world of the living on one condition—that Orpheus not turn around to look at her until he was back in the world again. But look he did, dooming their love forever.

Richard Powers' wonderful new novel, Orfeo (W.W. Norton), flips the myth on its head. Peter Els, our contemporary classical composer protagonist, spends the entire book looking back, revisiting his past both metaphorically and literally, so that he might move forward, peaceably, into death. For as much as Orfeo is about music—and it is, overwhelmingly so—it is at its heart a poignant meditation on aging, and on what remains after we are gone.

Orfeo begins with an overture: "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."

And then, a break. "I did what they say I tried to do. Guilty as charged."

These brief interjections into the story—sometime first person, sometimes not, set off from the text in a different font—could be read as a dissonant counterpoint to Els' story. And as the novel spins out, you realize there's musicality in the structure as well as the text—a fugue for the fugitive, perhaps.

Because in the novel, Els does quickly become a fugitive. Mistaken for a bioterrorist after police spot petri dishes Els has been using to try to create music in bacteria, the composer flees town without much thought of consequence or what comes next. As Els drives west from Pennsylvania, he recollects the moments that brought him to this point—his father's sudden death, his first love, his time in graduate school during the heady 1960s, his wife and child, his best friend, and, most importantly, all the music that influenced his life and career.

Powers writing about the intersection (and interplay) of music and science isn't new, of course. But Orfeo is far from a retread of his 1991 novel The Gold Bug Variations, which intertwined Bach and the double helix—it's something fresh and magical, a swan dive into the meaning of music.

"There was nothing more pressing to do all day, every day, except to think about the question that his whole life had failed to answer: How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul? … It made no sense that a few staggered chords could make the brain love an unmet stranger or grieve for friends who hadn't died," Powers writes as Els reflects on his retirement.

It's a question worth pondering. The entire novel, in fact, is full of things worth pondering—moments that force you to put the book down and think. Moments like the dozen pages describing the composition of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, written and first performed in a Nazi POW camp in 1941. It's a stunning passage—you can hear the music bleeding off the pages, even if you have no idea what it sounds like in actuality.

Despite all the references to classical musicians and specific works—there are a lot, and a lot of them are obscure—you don't need to be a scholar to appreciate Orfeo. If you can listen to Steve Reich's Proverb along with Els when he encounters it in a coffee shop in the last third of the novel, all the better, but you don't need to know Reich or his work to understand how the contrapuntal piece works. Powers describes it for you.

"Voices align and interfere. Bliss starts to jar. The lines weave a standing wave, a sonic moiré. Then those pulsing chord cadence again at another perfect fourth.

"An organ emerges from nowhere. … The soprano lines echo and multiply: How small a thought/It takes to fill/a whole life. The twin tenors lift free above the organ's drone."

It's possible there's a little too much of this—too many descriptions of too many musical pieces. By the end of the novel, they started to run together. But it's hard to fault such beautiful writing about music when it so rarely happens.

The delights of the nonmusical passages are equally compelling—Powers has long had an incredible gift of phrasing. A building looks "like the love child of a logic problem and crossword puzzle." A motel room is "like the afterlife in a French existentialist novel." Sometimes they're so clever, so perfectly apt, you can't help but clap your hands in glee.

Powers has been criticized for often letting his erudition overtake the humanity of his characters, and an ungenerous reader might find the same problem with the tangential characters in the novel. But if we're honest with ourselves, when we're looking back on our past, aren't we also seeing our old friends, our ex-lovers as tangential characters, never as fully fleshed out as ourselves?

In short, the story of Peter Els and his attempt to measure what a life is worth, both in notes and in flesh and blood, is an affecting and provocative read. (It's also not a bad primer for Big Ears.) "Downbeat of a little infinity," Els thinks at the end of the book. Isn't that all one could want in a novel?