Orfeo, by Richard Powers


Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

A lot of readers whom I respect have nothing but good to say about Orfeo. It received very positive reviews in the professional press. Just last week, it was named to the National Book Award longlist. Earlier, it was one of the first four novels by U.S. authors to be named to the Booker Prize longlist, although it failed to make the shortlist. And at Trevor’s Booker forum, five of the 10 people who read it at the longlist stage ranked it best overall.

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.

booker logoEls 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.


14 Responses to “Orfeo, by Richard Powers”

  1. Brett Says:


    You are not the first person I’ve heard voice this opinion. As a classical musician (a singer, in fact), I loved this book and what it had to offer. But I have recommended it to other non-musicians that were not nearly as impressed as I was.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for that comment, Brett. I think that some knowledge of the “structure” of music (as opposed to just how it sounds, which is pretty much the limit of my knowledge) probably makes those sections much more accessible.


  2. sharkell Says:

    Thanks Kevin, I had this on order from the library but reading your review made me realise it is not my type of book.


  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    *chuckle* I may be with you on this too, I am of the “beautiful is just fine school” too!


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Often when I am reading a book that features music (Echenoz’s Ravel for example) I listen along while I read. Indeed, in that case, I bought a few of Ravel’s stranger pieces that were featured in the novel that I did not have. I know enough about the music featured in this one that that would have made the reading even more challenging.


      • Lisa Hill Says:

        I don’t know how I came to miss your review of Echenoz’s Ravel at the time you published it, but I’ve found it now – and the book is on its way to me from Fishpond!
        BTW Have you seen the stunning new bio of Beethoven by Jan Swafford? It’s a real chunkster, so it will take me a while to read and review it because I only read NF over breakfast, but I like what I’ve read so far.
        BTW#2 I’ve just recently read a novel which actually has a playlist in the back of it. I wonder if the eBook version of it will have links to iTunes? Alas, it’s all rock music (Beatles, Rolling Stones etc.) and even though in my twenties I quite liked rock music at the right kind of party, I cannot imagine reading a book accompanied by that music.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        BTW 1: Good luck with the bio — I have to confess that I don’t read them (or memoirs). Strictly a matter of personal prejudices, I have to admit.

        BTW 2: Readalong music has to be without words — I couldn’t cope with two competing streams of words, one arriving through the eyes, the other the ears.

        Good luck with Ravel — it was my first Echenoz and remains one of my favorite short novels.


  4. Caz Says:

    As someone who has not one musical bone – in fact, I think I’m missing that whole “music” sense all together – I still enjoyed the concepts and ideas in this book. However I didn’t feel guilty at all about skipping over the pages of musical descriptions, I just figured they weren’t written for me and moved onwards πŸ™‚

    I do completely appreciate where you’re coming – I think the book just caught me in a particularly positive mood (I’d just read Ferris, and any next book was always going to look good! πŸ™‚


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I definitely understand your point about Ferris. πŸ™‚ And I have no trouble understanding why even non-musical people would take to this book — even with a quarter remaining I thought it could still be “recovered” with a very good finish. Alas, I was not impressed with the ending.


      • Caz Says:

        You’re right, the ending could have been a lot better. I think I’m just in awe of the DNA as an embedded language / code idea πŸ™‚


  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m very keen on atonal music, not that that’s quite how I’d normally describe it, and have got into Messaien and some of the West Coast minimalists and a lot of electronic and noise stuff. The book though is what it is, it has to succeed on its own merits and if good enough it shouldn’t be necessary to have an interest in the specific subject matter.

    The setup does sound a little contrived to me, even though the ideas sound interesting. Your point on the opera seemed to me interesting in that regard though, because of course he wouldn’t be commissioned.

    In a way it sounds like form doesn’t follow subject. Somehow for a book addressing issues of avant-garde music I’d probably look for a less traditional structure, for an avoidance of convenient plot events like the opera commission. Of course it doesn’t follow that a book about the avant-garde (odd phrase given how many decades back this stuff goes now) need itself be avant-garde.

    I may actually still read this one, just because I am passionate about the music it discusses (much of which I do find beautiful by the way, I’d certainly argue that Messaien’s work contains beauty), but it’s definitely not a must-read for me.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I thought about you more than once while reading this one. Powers has an established reputation for science fiction (which I know is one of your interests) and it often occurred to me that some of the parts I was struggling with were sort of literary versions of fairly common sci-fi techniques that I should have found less challenging than I did.

      I was certainly willing to engage with the premise of embedded language/code (thanks for that shorthand, Caz). I obviously found it didn’t work — it is equally obvious that it did work for others. From what you have said in this comment and what I know of your interests, I think this would be worth picking up — I suspect you will find much ore in it than I did.

      And a final aside on Messaien’s work. While I was reading Orfeo, a copy of Giller-winner Johanna Skibsrud’s new novel arrived: Quartet for the End of Time. I won’t get to it until after my Giller reading, but it looks like I’ll be heading into this (atonal, avant garde) music/literary link again.


      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I didn’t have him placed as an SF writer too, but if he is using those techniques that would be interesting, and I can see too why they might not work for you but might for me.

        I’ll look forward to your Skibsrud review, and in the meantime will tentatively add this to my wider to be read list so it remains in mind for future.


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