At the beginning of Richard Powers’ new novel Orfeo, Fidelio, the aging golden retriever of eccentric composer Peter Els, dies. Els’ over-reactive 911 call summons local police to his home in rural Pennsylvania, where, long-divorced, he lives alone. Once an adjunct professor at a local college—“a stone-dragging serf helping to build a very wide pyramid”—he’d been let go three years earlier. About Fidelio, to the police: “It felt like an emergency,” Els says.
Els’ study, standing open, is filled with laboratory gear, which draws the officers’ interest. Now 70, Els has become a hobbyist, he explains, growing bacteria in petri dishes he’s purchased online. They can’t understand, so he doesn’t say, but Els is composing in that lab. Laying down music in DNA. To police officers in 2011—“the tenth year of the altered world,” we learn in the book’s “overture”—this home biology lab feels like an emergency, which, the following morning, brings agents to Els’ door. The feds confiscate his germ incubator and ask Els “not to go anywhere for a couple of days.”
“Where in the world would I go?” he replies.
But when, the next morning, he returns home after a routine predawn walk, now without his dog, and finds his house cordoned off with yellow tape, Els panics—and eventually, he runs.
Where in the world does Peter Els go? Anywhere, nowhere, elsewhere, everywhere—these are all key words in the book. He goes north, south, east. And, of course, west. Orfeo is a first-class American road novel, this one about a man on the lam remembering where he’s come from and how, incredibly, he’s arrived—and us with him—at today’s here and now: “deep inside a traumatized country still dreaming of security.” He’s looking for a way out.
Composition and classical music drive Orfeo. Although, look elsewhere, practically anywhere, in Powers’ other novels and you’ll find he’s gone deep into music before—in 1991’s The Gold Bug Variations, where, as writer Paul Elie notes in his recent Reinventing Bach, Powers “would take the four-by-four bass pattern of the Goldberg Variations, pair it to the four-stranded pattern of DNA, and produce a fourfold prose work.” Or, in 1995’s Galatea 2.2, where an artificial intelligence’s earliest education comes in the form of the middle movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto: “[S]he’d been born wanting song.” Or, in 2003’s The Time of Our Singing, where an interracial family’s march through the civil rights era and beyond takes its cue from Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert on Easter 1939. Being “lost in likeness,” not difference, Powers says, was the “threat that drove the voice of a century out of doors. The threat of all singing.” A decade ago, Powers had characters play and sing themselves “into existence,” and their dramas, the threats they posed and those they faced, played out as part of the great crisis of America’s 20th century.
In Orfeo, the specter of the music is different. “God,” Els says, nonplussed, to the feds. “You think I nerve-gassed my dog.” Sensing this, his mind trains on threats of the security state: electronic surveillance, Patriot Act provisions such as “hold until cleared” like endless fermatas, a vivid memory of the Waco siege with “Innocent children … burnt to death by American law enforcement agents.” All of this, and a whole life in music, come to the surface while he runs.
Els thinks back to his earliest education in the clarinet, a first love—of Clara—coalescing around Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). He remembers, later, composing strange settings for Borges poems first sung by Madolyn Corr, whom he’d marry.