Orfeo – on the Man Booker Longlist

9780393349849_p0_v1_s260x420Some books just make you smarter when you read them, and National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Richard Power’s Orfeo raised my level of music appreciation while reminding me of the frightening power of modern science and technology.  Without the recommendation of the Man Booker long list – Powers is one of the first four Americans to be on that prestigious list – I would not have read this. Orfeo is both  a thriller focused on a fugitive fleeing across country from Homeland Security and the reminiscences of a seventy year old avant-garde composer whose retirement project is using bacterial DNA to splice musical patterns into living cells.

When his dog dies, Peter Els calls 911, annoying the policemen who answer the call – until they notice suspicious vials and Peter’s homemade laboratory.  The next morning, as Peter returns in his car from his morning walk (like many walkers Peter drives to a park to walk), he sees his house surrounded by the ubiquitous yellow tape, as men in hazmat suits are carefully packaging all his belongings.  He keeps on driving, and Powers begins a lifelong elegy uncovering how Peter’s life has brought him to this point.  Most of the novel is in flashback, from Peter’s childhood to his first love who convinces him in college that his talent for music should be acknowledged, as he switches majors from chemistry to music composition.  Eventually, he marries someone else, has a daughter, and falls into the perpetual search for the perfect score, with a few successes along the way – but too few to be noticed.

Powers invokes Mahler, Messiaen, and many others, using classical music the same way Melville used whaling.  At times, I skimmed over the information – much as I had in Moby Dick – searching for the thread that led back to the story.  Powers’ line: “Maddie’s eyes crossed a little when he went on too long about harmonic structure,” hit a chord with me.  Nevertheless, at one long interlude, when Peter plays the 5th Symphony, I found Shostakovich on my iPhone and played it as accompaniment to his description.

The novel really is more about music than bioterrorism, but Powers cleverly connects the easy access of modern technology and its dissemination.  As Els drives from Pennsylvania cross-country to his former wife, his old friend, and finally, his daughter, the watchful observance of ATM machines, phone logs, and highway cameras follow.  The possibility that anyone – even a well-meaning musician – could become the target of a zealous government pursuit may be the real terror, but, in the end, Els learns to use the social media to counterattack.

Despite the haunting remorse of not having listened more carefully in Music Appreciation 101, I found myself immersed in the story and finished the book quickly – in awe of Powers’ use of the “silence between the notes.” The emotional impact of following the protagonist had me lost in what Powers describes as “…the book’s power to erase  {the reader}…the single most useful trick of fiction…” If you decide to read the book, beware that the opener is only a teaser, and you will wallow through pages before you get the rhythm.  If you are an impatient reader, or one who must look up every obscure reference, this may not be for you.

The Man Booker Longlist