There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.
In Orfeo (2014), Peter Els is an avant-garde composer, inspired at a key formative moment by John Cage and his exuberantly unconventional and groundbreaking methods, who is, as we initially join him, pretty much retired and taken to pottering around his home tending to his aging dog and his microbiology experiments: namely, incorporating his musical compositions into strands of bacteria. He feels the two — music and chemistry — are deeply wedded and inter-compatible, and his tinkering is ultimately a late and forlornly fascinated attempt to conjoin the two loves that have battled for dominance throughout his life, music finally besting chemistry career-wise, but never a clear victor in his mind.
To Els, music and chemistry were each other’s long-lost twins: mixtures and modulations, spectral harmonies and harmonic spectroscopy. The structures of long polymers reminded him of intricate Webern variations. The outlandish probability fields of atomic orbitals — barbells, donuts, spheres — felt like the units of an avant-garde notation. The formulas of physical chemistry struck him as intricate and divine compositions.
Alongside courses in structure and analysis, he sneaked in an elective in music composition. Harmonizing chorales and realizing figured bass felt a bit like algebra. He wrote minuets in the style of Haydn and imitation Bach da capo arias. For Clara’s twentieth, he scored “Happy Birthday” a la late Beethoven. For New Year’s Eve 1961, he gave her his most elaborate trinket yet: a Brahms intermezzo treatment of “How About You?” Clara read through the gift, shaking her head and laughing at a thing so obvious to everyone but its maker.
Powers writes brilliantly throughout about both music and chemistry (a bit of a must under the circumstances) and manages to share his (I imagine) copious research without losing the music of language or compromising the chemistry between two enormous subjects he sees, and convincingly suggests, are deeply entwined.
The book moves swiftly through the opening act: Els’ dog dies and he oddly phones 911 in a bit of a flap; this leads to an unfortunate visit from a couple of police officers who placate Els but clock his somewhat unconventional setup. He is soon answering a knock on the door from a pair of shifty suits introducing themselves as members of the “Joint Security Agency.” They sniff around, assume the worst (particularly when they spot something a bit tangentially terroristy on Els’ wall — it turns out to be an antique Arabic notation sheet, but no matter: it compounds the paranoiac iffyness) and the hazmat brigade are soon tipping the house upside down (Els misses all this action as he’s left early: only when driving home does he see what’s afoot). He doesn’t venture anywhere near the invaders, who would facilitate, as he sees it, a quick dispatch to a never-ending round of incarcerated questionings. He swings his car around and heads over to his evening musical class, the students of which are all sedately sequestered in a nearby nursing home, and on his way there mulls the prospect of handing himself over to the authorities.
Instead he agrees to loan a backwoods haven, courtesy of one of his veteran class members, and scarper. He holes up there (there’s a cute scene involving Els clattering initiation into the charms of heavy metal Gods Anthrax, the ear-flattening fury of said band pumping out of the kitchen ghetto blaster a fair approximation of the noise already thundering in the escaping composer’s frantic head) and peruses the flummoxing volume of internet coverage speculating on his whereabouts, intent and likely hitherto concealed demonic status.
This contemporary-set tale, centering around the folly, in such times, of experimenting with the stuff of life, and the fraught atmosphere of hair-trigger suspicion and pre-emption, irrespective of the ease-of-availability of such stuff online, is compelling stuff, but it’s merely one of two main strands of Orfeo.
The novel is threaded with another, equally compulsive timeline: the contrapuntal (and it does brilliantly offset and charge the alternate narrative) retrospection Els weaves into his story. We follow, in cleverly juxtaposed fashion, his life from youngster through college and his awakening (which turns out to be, as he sees it, a fatally wrong turn) as a composer in tandem with his first real love, Clara, who opens his mind to the future and then shuts it again, just as seismically. We move on through his avant-garde metamorphosis, an osmotic alteration at least partially down to two new players in his life, second big love Maddy, also mother of his only child, a kind of leftfield dervish that evokes community-center Kate Bush, and maverick iconoclast Bonner, who “ran on sufficient in-built demons – hellfire father, suicide mother, a younger sister sealed up in cortical seizures – that no amount of labor would ever exorcise”, who rides the John Cage train over the cliff into atonal dissonant gleeful envelope-stomping.
The centerpiece performance that heralds Els’ sonic switch from emulating his idols to forging a brave new musical identity of his own (with goading accomplice Bonner, an almost chaotically eager trailblazer, who pushes Els into areas he might’ve merely tentatively mapped otherwise) is very unprecedented and daring, taking its lead from Cage’s uncategorizable musical innovations with projected film and dance accompaniment, and Powers doesn’t hint in the least as to how successful the succession of pieces is: we understand that at least half the audience haven’t got a clue what’s unfolding, which certainly adds to the potential-disaster suspense levels.
The projectors blazed again, along with a choir of antiphonal taped voices. Images pelted the hall’s walls in a time-lapse cavalcade that ran from Edison’s electrocuted elephant to Edward White tethered to his German capsule by a twenty-five-foot umbilical above the blue earth. The pianist placed his forearms across the keyboard and undulated. Horn, oboe, and cello built a corona of minor seconds while the percussionist rolled sponge mallets on a suspended china cymbal. On a fixed pitch in the middle of her range, rising three steps at the end of the line, Maddy, motionless, intoned:
Sooner or later, all men will do and know all things.
Typical of the novel: such deployed lyrics are a direct corollary to a Powers theme burbling underneath the main plotlines: the crazed fecundity of the Internet.
There’s very much a feeling in Orfeo of being tantalized, of being on the cusp of something that will remain elusive, be it the ever-advancing lure of science, the agonizing and impossible-to-apprehend abundance of information proliferating online, the perfect musical composition, the answer to life, the universe and everything. Powers lends such doomed pursuits not just pathos but a kind of hopeful advocation of humans’ inability to ever settle. It’s not just a maddening and melancholy-inducing characteristic (although it is very much partly that): it’s also a testament to our incorrigible curiosity, our eternal playful determination amid the enveloping darkness.
His flight from the martyr-seeking mob is not just, fictionally at least, a haphazard sprint out into a symbolic void: it acts as a kind of drawing together of all the disparate strands of Els’ life: he crosses paths with Clara for a final time; this leads to him meeting Bonner once again, who plants the idea in his mind for another kind of viral strain altogether (Tweeting his plight as a falsely pursued patsy); he finally lands with his own spiritual twin, his daughter, and subsequently gets a fantastically downbeat finale, though not without a certain defiant grandeur.
Powers seems worried about our legacy and what we leave behind (perhaps regardless of our wishes), and Powers is as mindful of how “people three hundred years from now would know which version of The Rake’s Progress Els bought online” as he is as to whatever our “achievements” might offer as residual proof that we existed. We will not just what we created or the dwindling and eventually vanished memories of our descendants or families — we will have an entirely different form of immortality and permanence that will speak of us long after our compositions are no longer read or listened to and our lives have ended. Powers puts just the right amount of emphasis on such galling inevitabilities.
He also thankfully isn’t quite that bleak about the role or manifestation of art as a tangible and immortal thing in itself. As Els says on more than one occasion: “Music isn’t about things. It is things.”
As long as we’re around to access those things, music will be as essential as air, Powers suggests, despite providing his protagonist with the revelation that he’s not necessarily meant to be more than a hobbyist practitioner. Science, to this writer, is as potentially grand, mystical and lyrical as the finest bit of Beethoven. And his skill as a writer of often deeply scientific works augments the wonder of both art and science, conjoins them superbly and augers new fictional territory.
The only problem I have with Orfeo, which is a supremely accomplished work of considerable beauty and substance, is that the very factor that makes it what it is also occasionally steers it too far into lapidary indulgence. Powers is sometimes over-reliant on his strong suit: gloriously sculpted similes and metaphoric riffs. The book, when he simply will not relinquish his hold on a gaspingly impressive analogy, loses a bit of traction as we become fleetingly sidetracked by florid digressions and lyrical overkill. Some of the coercively analogous stuff feels dutifully chiseled for the sake of uniform thematic reasons. He’s so good you forgive him, but there are moments — when he’s admirably reaching for just the right level of convoluted equivalent to emphasize and go toe-to-toe with the a etherealities of deeply intricate music — when we become doubly estranged from an elusive and subjective matter. He’s simply trying to do the virtually impossible, so it’s a minor bugbear. The results of this, when he gets them right, are staggering and worth all the knotty missteps.
(It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a fantastic intermission concerning a group of indefatigable and movingly resourceful musicians during World War II that I can’t do justice to here — it’s almost a bonus and certainly does all the things you’d imagine very effectively: reiterate an already forcefully evinced suggestion that music saves lives and so on. It’s a digression that works well as a standalone piece.)
And Powers, as he always has done, is adept at finding new ways of talking about familiar subjects, or rendering fictionally palatable things little discussed. We all know that it’s easy for anyone to become quickly demonized by a jumpy government, or organization, or individual. Powers can render such a scenario fresh and compulsive. He turns what, in lesser novels and at the hand of lesser talents, might be mere expositional drudgery, a bridge between scenes, into something in itself engaging and interesting. No paragraph falls below a lofty standard, and everything snaps into place expertly.
This, incidentally, is why the U.S. writers have been inducted into the eligible collective: they have a knack of producing highly readable, supremely entertaining, dauntingly accomplished intellectual nourishment. The Booker needs them. The longlist certainly benefits from the presence of Richard Powers on this kind of form, and should Orfeo miss out on the shortlist you may see me lurking just off the red carpet prior to the big announcement being made, rotten eggs at the ready.
Battered by cacophony, he grows huge. The thousand noisy tourists turn into a single organism, and then a single cell, passing millions of chemical signals a minute between its organelles. Plans blind us to the possible. Life will never end. The smallest sound, even silence, has more in it than the brain can ever grasp. Work for forever; work for no one.