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.
Els picks up the producing and recording technologies required of him in the second half of the 20th century with “nights in the electronic studio, coaxing the theremin, splicing tape loops, and learning how to program.” But even in the mid-60s, this level of control, the “omnipotence,” as he saw it, of being behind the controls, “made Els sad,” Powers writes. “He yearned for the clumsy, freighted flights of earthly instruments.”
And together Els and Maddy experience John Cage’s high-flying Musicircus, staged in November 1967 at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. It’s “something out of Dante.” All the while, Cage’s ideas—his “litany”—float through Els’ head: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
Then they have a daughter, Sara, who becomes for her father another musical partner and his most beloved co-conspirator:
It becomes their rolling litany. Let’s make something. Make what? Something good. Good how? Good and grumpy? No: Good and gentle. Good and treelike. Good like a bird.
Maddy catches them out one evening, giggling at some private nonsense over dinner.
What is it with you two? What’s the big secret these days?
Secret what? Els says, words that send his daughter into hysterics.
Sara holds her finger up, japing. Tips her head. Secret good!
Maddy swats at them. Fine! Be that way.
Jealous? Els asks.
Maddy stands and clears the dishes. Forget I asked.
Sara, anxious: No, Mom! You can know. We’re making things.
What kind of things?
Songs. Songs that nobody knows.
In Orfeo, these are the kinds of songs Els is best known for.
The freight of Els’ own clumsy flight from the law makes up the bulk of the novel. Stories of Sara, Clara, Maddy. Els has one contemporary accomplice, a former lover from his later years, who offers him a hideout and lends him a smartphone. The smartphone’s voice guides him on the road; its Internet browser offers the occasional insight into the media phenomenon he’s become, “Biohacker Bach.” Mainly Els keeps the phone powered down. Global positioning, he knows, can be used against him.
There’s real excitement in Els’ flight; excitement in the dramas performed and experienced over the course of a career; excitement in the descriptions of centuries of classical music, which send a reader out of the book to find, just for instance, a recording of Steve Reich’s “Proverb,” to hear what it is for this to happen: “The three high voices braid upward, stepwise by minor thirds, in a triple canon. … Then the parallel tenors rush back in. Twelfth and twenty-first centuries alternate, competing with each other. Those two broad streams flow together into a further sea.” And there’s excitement, too, in reading of pieces never played, or heard, outside the pages of the book. Songs that nobody knows.
And with all this excitement around music, in this retelling of the Orpheus myth Powers also manages enchantment—or, re-enchantment, if you, like so many of us, believe the world today needs that. Told largely as retrospection even as the story moves forward—“walking backward into the future,” as Els experiences it—Orfeo reveals how a life, and the narrative of a life, accumulates, impossibly, infinitely, from every direction. On the one hand, the fleeing Els, like Orpheus, cannot help but look back. And as with Orpheus, there must be consequences for his looking. But in a book about music, and with Powers a whole career about music, it’s no surprise when Els eventually says, “Seeing is overrated.” We see in one direction. We cannot see God and go on living.
Hearing, though, and really listening, Orfeo suggests, can redeem us in this life. Music’s great power, Els believes—and perhaps this, too, is the threat of all singing—has been its ability “to twist the viscera and swell whatever it was in humans that imagined it was a soul.”
In Orfeo, memories invade memories, adding up; the arts of prophecy and recall get confused—always through the power of music. For instance, early in his remembrances, Els anticipates a first kiss by recalling the girl being “everywhere at once,” an idea he takes from his music lessons with Clara years later: “Sometimes,” she tells him, “when I listen? I’m everywhere.” Our souls—“O little infinity!” Els hears near the end of the novel, a setting by Peter Lieberson of poetry by Pablo Neruda—are bigger than we are. They’re everywhere. Still later, songs performed for a toddling Sara appear “from a happy elsewhere.” During a performance of Els’ one breakout work, the music “from nowhere … comes back glorious.” Music, like nature, like the soul, abhors a vacuum. Music is bigger than we are.
This sort of accumulation is characteristic of Powers’ novels, filled as they are with multiple, interweaving narratives, the interlacing of technologies (some ahead of their time) with art and nature and culture. He puns, though less than he once did; he composes, occasionally in DNA. But mainly, over his career Powers has shown himself to be a musician with ever-changing time signatures, a time traveler who doesn’t see much value in keeping time—probably because he understands that time can’t keep us. In the face of music, for Els in Orfeo, “Time turns to nothing.” And if we allow ourselves to listen, really listen, Powers seems to say, we’ll be left, too, like Els, beyond time—and with swelling souls, beyond ourselves. Each of us, with luck, a little infinity.
Orfeo by Richard Powers. W.W. Norton.