Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: Orfeo

By (January 30, 2014) No Comment

Orfeoorfeo cover

by Richard Powers

WW Norton, 2014


The season’s predilection for purloining, pastiches, and parodies of various source matter ‘inspirations,’ whether it be 20th-century Gothic novels, ancient Japanese folktales, or Greek myths, probably reflects the 21st century’s increasing yearning for intellectual legitimacy (every century goes through this long and tedious pang right before it blossoms in its 20s and 30s) and surely must notch a kind of apogee with Richard Powers’ new novel Orfeo, which obviously gets its aesthetic marching papers from the Greek myth of Orpheus. The myth is a heartbreaker: a musician so supernaturally skilled that his songs can out-sing the Sirens themselves (which came handy for Jason and the Argonauts) loses his wife and uses his music to charm his way right to the heart of the underworld in order to bring her back to the light. The god of the dead agrees to let her go on one condition: that Orpheus not turn and look at her until both of them have fully returned to the living world. At the last minute, the musician can’t help himself and looks – and loses her all over again.

The apogee comes in because Powers is undeniably the most gifted of the adapters in question this time around. He’s a National Book Award-winner and the crafter of such intellectually intricate and emotionally powerful novels as The Echo Maker and Galatea 2.2, and although Time magazine has never announced him the Great American Novelist, he’s got a better claim to the title than any other writer in the country. When he dream-adapts some mythic source material, the result will always be worth intense scrutiny, even if the source material itself necessitates a structure as controlled and inescapable as a bobsled course (there’s no point in choosing the Orpheus myth if you’re interested happy endings).

The novel centers around Peter Els, a retired adjunct music professor at Verrata College in Pennsylvania, who one night dials 9-1-1 because beloved old dog has died (just in case you thought Powers might dilly-dally before throwing ice water on your Carl Hiaasen expectations). The cops arrive at his house in the book’s first scene, which bristles right away with this author’s signature spikes of borderline overwriting:

The two officers – a young man with a shot-putter’s gait and an older woman who gazed around bewildered as she walked – headed up the path to the front steps. Maple branches clicked in the spring wind. Dampened hilarity spilled out of a nearby house and across two dark lawns. High overhead, the twin jets of a short-haul flight shrieked toward the regional airport. Cars scythed up and down the state highway four blocks away.

If cars are already scything on page 4, you know you’re in for a triathlon of a book, and it’s true: Powers’ almost manic verbal inventiveness finds its way into every single crevice of Orfeo, just as it’s done in all of his previous novels. This is a severe weakness, this fundamental distrust that readers are capable of paying attention without having their eyeballs jolted every single sentence, but it’s a paradoxical weakness, because Powers does it so well you don’t want him to stop.

In any case, the cops notice that Els the avant-garde composer is also apparently something of an amateur chemist, with a full working bacteria-lab in his home. And in short order Homeland Security is raiding the place. Els’ decision to run from the law is a bit of protracted whimsy on Powers’ part (it’s not the only appearance of grim whimsy – was there ever an impulse more deadly in aging white male novelists? – in the book; for nearly 400 pages, Powers also carries on a flirtation with Twitter that’s as close to flat-out idiotic as a brilliant writer can come), but it lends itself to the double-helix narrative structure used to such devastating effect in The Goldbug Variations. Els’ fight with the law entwines with his memories of his life and his lost great love, and because that life belonged to a composer, Powers has a virtually unlimited invitation to digress on his favorite subject. These compositional digressions are uniformly brilliant – not brilliant enough to change the rightness of John O’Hara’s verdict that a novel ‘loses 80 yards’ for every flashback, but brilliant just the same. This bit breaking down every stray note from the wartime premiere of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time gives a good taste of Powers’ pith at this kind of thing:

The fourth movement, a little music-box trio, lasts ninety seconds. It could be a trifle from before the war, a lark from back when the largest crisis facing civilization was still skirt length. Eternity, too, needs its interludes.

(Alongside pith, there’s also a squeaking amount of geekishness, the full weight of which Powers transfers to Els, whose forbidden fantasy, we’re told with complete conviction, is “to have already written Ligeti’s twenty-part, micropolyphonic Requiem before Ligeti did”; somewhere in Hell, Tom Clancy is working his way through that line with dogged incomprehension.)

There’s some oddly leaden dialogue scattered throughout the book’s second half – exchanges like when one character says whadya think? and the other responds I have two words for you, and one of them is Holy …In the horrid parlance of writing workshops, these exchanges don’t work; they sound like the tinny approximations of a 50-year-old trying to sound like his teenage nephews, or worse, the characters in his teenage nephews’ favorite YA novel.

But even in a work like Orfeo, a gamesome but minor-key Powers composition, the glitches are burned away in the novel’s third act, as present-day regret and past-time remembrance begin increasing each other’s urgency and feeding off each other’s code-words. Powers does this sort of thing better than anybody, and although in this novel his referents are extra nerdy, his skill at conveying inspiration is itself inspired:

Walking home in the cold, toting his scrap of cardboard, pressed between his wife and wild friend, Els hears a piece in his head, music like the kind Schumann reported hearing as he slipped into madness – an instrument of splendid resonance, the like of which has never been heard on Earth. The harmonies are rich and braided, leading to an unprepared Neapolitan sixth, a rediscovery of naive sequences, and the melody feels so inexorable that he knows it’ll be waiting for him intact when next he sits down to a sheet of virgin staff paper.

And he never forgets his Orpheus theme:

But when Peter wakes in the new year, he fails to remember even hearing the piece. By the time he does, a few days later, it’s too late to transcribe. All that’s left is a blurred contour, disembodied music hinting at something magnificent just out of reach.

“Something magnificent just out of reach” would work well as a description of Orfeo itself, but so would “rich and braided,” so we’re in luck.