Sunday, November 19, 2017

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Peter Els has lived a life of music.  While he went to college to be a chemist, music was always large and came to be his major.  He is a composer and totally immersed in the musical world.  His friends are all musicians.  When he falls in love, it is with a musician.  Over the years, Peter has spent his time in bursts of creativity followed by fallow years when he fears the music has deserted him.  After his marriage fails and he loses his wife and daughter, he lives at times for years in isolation, emerging when his muse returns and he is in a creative cycle.

Now in his seventies, Els has a more serene life.  He spent his last working years as a music professor in a small liberal college and it was a content time for him.  He has taken back up his old interest in chemistry and created a home lab where he tickers with gene cells, wondering if their mathematical absolutism can be translated into music.  One day he opens his door to find police there.  With the rise of Homeland Security, his home lab had been noticed and when there is an outbreak of a disease no one can immediately diagnose, he comes under suspicion.

Alarmed by the visit and emotionally wrecked by the death of his longtime pet, Els is off-kilter and takes off, a move that again, makes him look more suspicious.  As he runs from the police, he retraces the steps and relationships of his past and the reader slowly learns what makes this man who lives in a world so far removed from what most of us experience, is all about.  His primeval need is to create and he sees music in everything around him.  He wants to use music to challenge, to push people past their normal barriers.

The twenty-four news cycle takes up the hunt for Els as he flees, having gained the nickname 'the biohazard Bach'.  Since he cares nothing for normal life and is used to solitude, he manages to evade the hunt as he moves from past icon to past relationship, always clarifying in his own mind the urge to create and share what he has learned.

Orfeo is a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus.  It was a Man Booker nominee in 2014 as well as a National Book Award nominee.  It confirms the status of Richard Powers as one of our best modern novelists, one who is not afraid to take readers on a voyage of great thoughts and to challenge them.  In this work, the reader who is not musical gets a glimpse into what is so compelling about this world and about how creation is everything to those who inhabit it.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

No comments: