Orfeo: A NovelOrfeo: A Novel by Richard Powers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

i read for a lot of reasons: escapism, because i love language and sentences, to think about things in a way i haven’t before, because i want to “experience” things i have never experienced. i can’t say i’ve ever wanted to read a book because, like some psychic surgeon, it will plunge its paper hands in, rifle around in my guts, pull out some parts for special examination, and put me back together unscarred, but somehow not in the same order i was before.

i am left somewhat perplexed.

the plot concerns Peter Els, retired musical composer and man forever seeking just one step closer to perfection. if you’re a Powers fan, you’re waiting to hear what the second narrative is, because Powers often beguiles us by weaving together two separate ones in his novels. in this case we get Els-Now and Els-Past. Els has, by way of a dead dog and a home bio lab, come to the unfriendly attention of Homeland Security. this propels Els into a cross-country road trip while he escapes Johnny Law and tries to weave his past into a comprehensible narrative.

in wicked moments, i image Powers with a big hand-cranked barrel, into which he has thrown a bucketful of nouns and phrases on separate slips of paper. i see him giggling gleefully while he pulls out six or seven at random: fear, music, the surveillance state, DNA, aging, beauty, art. and then he rubs his primate hands together and says, yes! that’s what i’ll write about. cause who else but Powers would try to connect such apparently disparate dots?

how he connects them in this novel is a thing of absolute beauty.

i know fuck-all about music, which takes up a great deal of space in this book, yet Powers lead my ignorant ear through it masterfully, always bringing out the significance of what he was on about. no mean feat, that. i want the soundtrack to this book, big time. through it all he gives us a composer’s view of what this art form is all about, and how a composer might hear the world. it’s a startling view, sound–quite different from my experience of the world.

in the end though, i don’t think this book is about music. i’m not sure what it is about–beauty? art? the deep longing for some depth, some feeling, that we (particularly in a consumer culture) lack and cannot purchase? or maybe, as Powers says in the book, music isn’t about something, it is something.

i’ll go with that. can’t wait to re-read this book and have it, once again, show me something entirely new.