‘Orfeo’ author captures myriad emotions in the early ’70s

Published: January 12 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:59 am in

Richard Powers is my favorite author. There is some ineffable quality in his work that resonates deeply within me. It no doubt has much to do with his thrilling ability to write about science and art and love — and their intersections and contradictions — with both grace and erudition. There must be something about the cadences of his prose to which I respond, as well.

My love for his fiction may have its source in the wellspring of my memories of initially immersing myself in his work, reading “The Gold Bug Variations” shortly after I was married and embarking on my first career. The novel seemed wholly wondrous at that transitional and exciting moment in my life, and I carry some of that wonder into every encounter with Powers’ books.

Each time Powers writes a new novel, I wonder if this is the book that will break the spell. I can say without equivocation, however, that “Orfeo,” set for release on Jan. 20, is not that book.

In “Orfeo,” composer Peter Els spends his life pushing the boundaries of musical expression, seeking the new, the relevant, and the resonant. Late in life, his quest takes him from the confines of the musical staff into the boundless frontier of microbiology. He finds himself on the run when Homeland Security takes an interest in experiments he’s been conducting in his home.

As Els reflects on his past, Powers offers up virtuosic descriptions of avant-garde music both real and imagined. These passages, even more than the quiet suspense of Els’ flight from authorities, provide the book’s tension and release. Els is desperate for music that can change the world, and Powers ensures that we, too, are invested in the centuries-long search. Here, Els — besotted father, struggling artist — strains to find a way forward musically.

“Five years in the Fens apartment pass like the Minute Waltz. His fellow Illinois grads have scattered into university music labs across the United States. He listens to their gnomic tapes, studies their gnostic scores. Musical resistance still strikes him as worthy. Between Nixon, the endless war, and a radio spectrum filled with bland self-pity and sales jingles, there’s more to resist than ever. But he listens, and can’t get traction.”

Powers is also attuned to the anxieties of the present moment — the hopes and dangers of scientific progress, the threat of terrorism in myriad shadowy forms, the desire for connectedness in a fragmented world. The vagaries of love are also essential to the story, and Powers brings us loves new, lost, and tentatively redeemed.

“Orfeo” is beautiful, challenging, and haunting, a composition that captures a period of time while hinting at timelessness.

Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.

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