Richard Powers writes what I would call serious fiction. I've read two of his books now (the first being The Echo Maker), and both are big meaty novels masquerading as something small. Orfeo is laser-focused on the life of its single main character, Peter Els, but it also encompasses a history of music and a complete philosophy of musical composition. It's as if by zooming in uncomfortably close, Powers makes the minutiae somehow enormous. He's a master of the microcosm; he doesn't need a big cast of extras milling in the background to demonstrate the universality of his themes.
Perhaps it's this penchant for what I call seriousness that has made him a bit of an awards darling. The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in 2006, and Orfeo is on the just-released longlist for this year's prize. I don't necessarily think that all award-winning books are automatically fabulous, but it's a nice vote of confidence and occasionally factors into how I prioritize my to-read list. In this case I think the nod is well-deserved.
Peter Els is a composer, now retired and keeping busy with an in-home chemistry lab he set up as a hobby. He's always been interested in both chemistry and music, seeing them as similar ventures. However, a chance encounter with the police has disastrous results. Too late, Els realizes what he sees as harmless tinkering could be viewed by outsiders as malicious, possibly even terroristic. Suddenly Els finds himself on the run, beginning an odyssey that will force him to reflect on his past and try to make sense of how he ended up the “Bioterrorist Bach,” famous not for his music but for his crimes.
Powers tells Els's story in alternating sections, weaving between his past lives as child, student, husband, father, bohemian musician, and retiree and his present exodus from small-town Pennsylvania. Painstakingly, he exposes Els's every quirk and flaw and flight of fancy, and as only the best authors do, brings meaning to the inexplicable. How could Els have manipulated genes in his kitchen, risked creating a superbug that could cause an epidemic? By the last page, I felt like I understood.
Orfeo will be most enjoyable for readers with at least a passing interest in classical music. There are many long passages describing musical works in vivid and exhaustive detail. I spent hours in my formative years playing in chamber orchestras and singing experimental pieces in chorales, and I still occasionally glazed over during these sections.
Still, if you're in the mood for a challenge, if you've had a little too much reality TV in your life lately, if the onset of fall makes you want to settle down with some serious literature, Orfeo is the book for you.