Powers has won the National Book Award previously; he is known for his excellent writing, often described as cerebral or philosophical.
Orfeo opens in a home, a craftsman bungalow, where a man dressed in protective gear is creating something using beakers, vials, pipettes, and pellets. The scene switches to an unfinished 9-1-1 call. Later, EMTs arrive at the door of the bungalow to learn that the call was about a beloved but very sick dog, now dead. As they assess the situation, they take in the in-home laboratory. These initial scenes struck me as almost perfect in their introduction of Richard Els and how others would judge his eccentric pursuits.
The next morning, as Els is out for a walk, hazardous materials workers arrive, dismantle the lab, and take it all away. Els decides on the spur of the moment to run away, though his scientific work wasn’t about terrorism but was using science to compose music. The story becomes a national news phenomenon.
The remainder of the novel alternates between Els on the run, and Els looking back on his life as a composer, an absentee husband, and distant father. Powers presents him as someone who never quite achieves a balance between expressions of his remarkable intelligence and musical sense, and his yearning to be a friend and family man.
Els studied musical composition in the 1960’s and 1970’s with a focus on creating new kinds of sound that would strike most people as not music at all. Powers spends a lot of time describing that sound and related music, to my mind, too much time. And yet that emphasis helps clarify why Els couldn’t stay married, didn’t remain close to his daughter, and lost his best friend. On the run, he seeks them out.
I felt the power of this novel even in the midst of my irritation. This may be part of the genius of the book, underscoring the central dilemma of his life. Powers creates a powerful and perfect conclusion, drawing together what seems impossible.
I expect it will be a fairly rare reader who is either interested enough in the music, or willing enough to plow through it to get to that perfect conclusion. I’ll likely recommend this to people who enjoy literary fiction, and who would be drawn to Els’ struggle to honor his music at such a high cost.