Book Review: Orfeo, by Richard Powers; Classical Music and Terror

Orfeo_0.jpgEver since I first discovered Richard Powers’ novel Gold Bug Variations (, Amazon UK), I have been following this author’s work closely. I await each new novel with impatience, as he has one of the most fascinating voices in modern fiction.

Powers often writes novels where science is an important character (and some which is properly science fiction). There are scientists, neurological illnesses, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. But Powers is also clearly a music fan, as Gold Bug Variations shows (partly based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, partly on Poe’s The Gold Bug). This love for music can be seen in his latest novel, Orfeo. (, Amazon UK, iBooks)

Powers is a master stylist; he is a master of the sentence. Reading a novel by Richard Powers can be like strolling through a museum. Each sentence, each paragraph stands out like a painting, giving a specific view of the world. As I was reading Orfeo, there were hundreds of sentences that I could have underlined, because they were so breathtakingly beautiful. (Well, I don’t underline in books; I can’t deface them. I stick little post-its to mark my favorite passages.) Powers said, in an interview with the Paris Review:

A lot of people who have written about me have written about the architecture and the large-scale design of my work, which is important to me. But it’s really the individual sentence that I work at again and again until it becomes the thing it’s trying to describe. To me, that sense of complete commensurability between form and content at the level of the individual sentence is really what writing is all about. I love to see how much load a sentence can bear. I don’t want it to be a performance. I don’t want it to call attention to itself as a virtuosic set piece. But I do want somehow to do this double-voicing where a sentence can reflect the virtuosity of the human mind. Reflect the multiplicity and richness of a sensibility as it tries to synthesize all these inimical things in the experiential world. What I really like to learn how to do is to build sentences that are equal to mental states.

Orfeo tells the story of an avant-garde composer, Peter Els, who, in his early life, had considered becoming a chemist. Now in his 1970s, Els starts dabbling with biochemistry: home DNA experiments on bacteria. When some federal agents find out, he becomes branded a bio-terrorist, and flees, setting out a journey to exonerate himself while becoming an internet sensation. He even tweets from @TerrorChord; a real Twitter account exists which contains all the tweets that were made in the book. (The author has confirmed to me by email that he is not behind that account.)


The novel alternates between the story of Els in the present, on the run, and the story of his life as a composer. Beginning in the earliest days, when he makes music that only a select few want to listen to, Els tries to find his voice, to find music that will change the world. But, when he is a fugitive, he realizes that he had once:

… believed that music could save a person’s life. He could think of nothing now but all the ways it might get a person killed.

Throughout this trajectory, Powers riffs on music and terror. He focuses closely on a number of works, which feature as plot points for Els’ life:

  • Mozart, Jupiter symphony
  • Mahler, Kindertotenlieder
  • Messiaen, Quatuour pour la fin du temps
  • Cage, Musicircus
  • Reich, Proverb
  • Shostakovich, 5th symphony
  • Lieberman, “Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres,” from Neruda Songs

Powers’ comments about music are perceptive, and his comments about the way people listen to music even more so. Watching a young woman jog, Els thinks:

A tinny munchkin backbeat trailed from her earbuds in her wake. Els couldn’t make out the flavor of her bliss. This part, these advance spring flowers, the sixty-degree air stolen from paradise, were colored for her by invisible instruments that no one but she could hear.

But much of this novel is also about the irrational reaction to “terror” that has gripped the United States. Els was merely playing apprentice sorcerer with banal bacteria, the kind that we wear on our skin. (The reader learns why at the end of the novel.) But, as Els says:

The nation has been panicked for ten years. And if spreading panic is the measure, every news anchor is a terrorist.

As Els thinks to himself:

You’ve just turned some stupid misunderstanding into a federal offense by acting like a criminal.

The novel must reach a conclusion, and it does, in an unexpected way. But not without raising poignant questions about music itself. Much of this novel asks the question, “Why music?” What does music do for us; why do we react in the ways we do. Els applauds the vast catalog of music that people can call up at will on portable devices, and he later asks the question, “How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul.”

There is no answer to this question, but if you care about music, you’ll want to read Orfeo. Even if you don’t like classical music, you’ll find a taut thriller, interspersed with reflections on art. Either way, this is a page-turner that explores the place of art in our lives.

As Powers says, “Life is an escaped experiment, say the artists, and the only real safety is death.”

Once more with feeling…

P.S.: If you’re a science fiction reader, Richard Powers’ Genie, a Kindle Single (, Amazon UK), is one of the most moving first contact stories I’ve read. It is also somewhat related to the theme of Orfeo…