I’ll cut right to the chase and admit that I am an outlier on this one. For this reader, Orfeo was difficult, disappointing and unrewarding — it was a real chore getting to the finish.
Powers introduces us to the book’s central character, Peter Els, in his home microbiology lab, “clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves”, where he is engaged in his project to alter and reconstruct DNA:
No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden. The man is retired, and people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn the tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces.
But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He’s never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.
That quiet retirement is about to change dramatically. Peter’s dog, Fidelio, has just died. Obviously in the early stages of dementia, Els has called 911 — even though all he wants to do is bury his faithful companion wrapped in a treasured quilt in the back yard. While the EMTs tell him to call Animal Care and Control, they also take quiet note of the lab paraphernalia and pass those observations along to Homeland Security authorities.
Els is an adjunct professor at Verrata College, an avant-garde composer who still teaches a music appreciation course at a nearby senior citizen’s residence. It is while there that he hears his house has been surrounded by police and yellow tape, invaded by haz-mat-suited scene of crime officers determined to find out just what kind of terrorist science is going on here.
In fact, Els has just been pursuing a lifelong interest in the inextricable links between the roots of music and science. Rather than returning home to explain that, he chooses to take flight — one can’t help but think that dementia is having its way with him again.
Okay, that premise had promise, particularly in the way that Powers develops some of the background. One of the reasons that Els loved Fidelio so much was that “music launched her into ecstasies…when any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.” For Els, music (and chemistry for that matter) isn’t something that is “composed” it is just “there”, waiting to be discovered. And we return to the young Peter, who even at age eight was equally fascinated by his clarinet and chemistry set.
While the investigation of Els and his flight will remain a constant backdrop in the novel, Powers soon reduces it to a secondary role. Els’ decision to flee is accompanied by a kaleidoscopic return to his past and how he has come to where he is — and it is the process of that where the author’s real interest lies. And while along the way we meet some worthwhile secondary characters in his wife and best friend (a musical director, rather than composer) from college, they too are only supporting factors in the novelist’s over-riding story.
Unfortunately for this reader, much of that is expressed in pages long explorations of avant garde classical music and the deeper meaning of its attachment to events. I am paraphrasing but Els comes from a school that feels that “beautiful” music is a trite travesty — they want atonal (you can insert other adjectives here — I love music, but I come from the beautiful is just fine school) compositions that disturb, not comfort, listeners. And for what it is worth, I like to make up my own mind about what music (or art for that matter) has to say rather than assuming there is some complex version of reality behind it that I have to discover.
Powers’ first excursion into a lengthy explanation linking music with harsh reality, how Messaien came to compose Quartet for the End of Time when he was a prisoner of war, initially sparked some interest on my part — but halfway through I was unconvinced and finding it a dreadful slog. Alas, that was merely a sign of more to come — we go through similar excursions into Els’ youthful compositions, a John Cage experience while at college and an opera that he was commissioned (highly improbably, since he is unknown with no established record) to compose for the New York City Opera.
Those who have an affinity for avant garde music undoubtedly might find something in these passages. I am afraid my response was much like that of his separated wife (who is one of the people he seeks out in his flight). While she was initially impressed and interested in his search for music, his failure to find anything eventually caused her to urge him to take up a real life — and when he didn’t, she took off with his daughter in tow.
Powers also indulges in some digressions into the relationship between music and chemistry (the search for a mathematical formula that results in both) which I found equally unrewarding. Again, as the reviews and response from other readers show, that negative response may well say more about me that it does about the novel.
If your response to all this is “well, KfC just wasn’t up to this one”, I’ll have to admit you may well be right. I did finish Orfeo, but after the opening quarter, it was an exercise in frustration.