Peter Els, an avant-garde composer, is on the run, as are many men in American fiction these days.
He was beginning to have trouble understanding music, and what he decided to do about it was to become a home bio-engineer. He wanted to alter bacteria for the purpose of recording his music on it: "the one durable medium". When he makes a clumsy phone call to 911 about his dead dog, he gets a visit from the police, who are startled by his suburban Pennsylvania laboratory and report him to the security services. "Bio-punk" doesn't go down well with the Department of Homeland Security.
Els has had the kind of career you can expect when you write serious music: it's been heard by the few (with one infamous exception, a grand opera that scandalized the musical world). He's spent most of his career as a teacher, and in the course of various disillusionments and periods of self-exile he has fallen in and out of love with several interesting women (the novel is very good on love), and also with music.
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The subject (and method) of Richard Powers's Orfeo is music, particularly some great achievements of modernism: listen to this music while reading the book, or perhaps you might hear the novel in the music later. There is a searing account of Shostakovich's dealings with Stalin. And in a virtuoso passage, which would make a wonderful short film, Powers takes Steve Reich's Proverb (a piece that sets a text by Ludwig Wittgenstein: "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life") and recounts its effect on a lot of different people in a sloppy midwestern coffee shop. It's a kind of Edward Hopper kaleidoscope of American types.
Powers makes you 'listen' to a lot of music on the page, ingeniously anchoring several major pieces to aspects of the story. He dazzlingly describes Olivier Messiaen's composition and performance, in a concentration camp in 1941, of the Quartet For The End Of Time, one of the most haunting pieces of 20th-century music: "The end of the End, when it arrives at last, comes as a solo violin above piano throb. Pared back to its essence, the melody abides, burnt pure in the crucible of the war. Out of a cloud of shimmering E-major chords -the key of paradise - the violin hints at all a person might still have, after death takes everything." Orfeo is an audacious attempt to write about music in a new way. It's not described, but performed for you on the page. It works.
As he flees erratically towards Arizona, Els reflects on his life ("I wanted music to be the antidote to the familiar") and what the government thinks he's done. The battle is really over the soul, not germs, and there's a sense of very recognisable 21st-century dread: "To call any music subversive, to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power … ludicrous. And yet, from Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds. To police the harmonic possibilities as if there were no limit to music's threat."
Thomas Bernhard, in one of his many bursts of intense irony, wrote "music will eventually destroy absolutely everything totally, mark my words". He was talking before the digital age, about the proliferation of music and the cynical uses of it, and predicted the avalanche of meaninglessness that's proving our undoing. Now along comes Orfeo to underline him with a flourish. "The world's bounty has overflowed," reflects Els, "and the young are washed away in it. Human ingenuity was doomed from the first, to do itself in with abundance."
Orfeo is a disquisition on what a suspicious government can make of culture and the sinister connections it randomly draws between one element of a citizen's life and another.
In that case, you might wonder, why not make the story about an idea, about music itself, and dispense with the middle-aged 'terrorist' and his Breaking Bad-style lab? But Richard Powers handles the sensational well, and this is a sensitive, thrilling, brainy book. If we must have car chases, we must. It's America!