The Short Version: Peter Els, a composer of some little renown, has gotten into hobby-level biology in his old age. But after a series of unfortunate events lands Homeland Security on his doorstep, he sets off on the run – all the while thinking back on the life that led him to this point and the sounds he had hoped to capture.
The Review: There’s a knack to writing about music. It’s a tricky business – because while you can deploy all the technical terms in the world or you can unload a cascade of beautiful description, you have to get (for lack of a better term) the groove or it falls flat on the page. It’s almost better to unload yourself from any sense of convention or propriety and just write what feels, well, right. And I get the sense that that’s exactly what Richard Powers did while he was working on Orfeo.
The novel itself is a speedy, well-constructed concerto for a mixed ensemble – but it is in the writing about the songs that it transcends the written word to become something else entirely. The most breathtaking description/explanation comes when Els explains to his class of old folks the history behing Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time” – and the narrative even matches the rhetorical flight that comes from hearing a truly amazing story and/or song. Suddenly, we forget that it’s Els essentially telling us this story – we forget that it’s a story at all. We are wrapped up in this moment, this beautiful and horrible and wondrous moment, and when it’s done you almost need a moment to catch your breath – that space of silence as the last notes ring out but before you allow the song to be over. And Powers manages to achieve this over and over again, with songs that I’ve never heard and songs that aren’t even real. In the way that I might spend sentences trying to describe exactly the combination of chills and forward motion that comes from the “shoo-wop shoo-wop”s on Arctic Monkeys’ “Fireside”, Els spends pages talking about specific sounds or moments of sound and how they affected him. It’s absolutely astonishing. Powers has done something remarkable here.
The story surrounding these bits of virtuosity are no slouch either. We pick up with Peter Els as he lives out his relatively mild-mannered existence – but only slowly do we come to realize that he has always sought to break through the ordinary. To find the next thing, to challenge people further. Many artists and intellectuals are like this and Els is no exception. The sacrifices you’d expect a man like that to make, he makes – family, friends, lovers, more lucrative but less fulfilling offers of employment. There’s little terribly surprising about the outline of that story – but Powers isn’t making that the focus. He wants us, instead, to think more broadly about the music around us – and I almost think he doesn’t go far enough in this regard. The idea is that Els, having passed 70 and facing some hearing loss, has gotten into basement biochemistry. He’s been messing with the genetic structure of something – looking, specifically, for the musical patterns that are undoubtedly encoded somewhere inside of us. Naturally, this alarms lots of people.
But Powers doesn’t really go down the potentially madcap comedic route that this plot could take. This isn’t to say that it isn’t funny and absurd still – a scene with Els and his old companion near the end of the book feels delightfully silly – but really he doesn’t even focus so much on the particulars of the “terror threat” plot at all. Els stays pretty much off the grid, only a few steps ahead of the Feds at any given moment – but we never get the sense of the scope of this threat. He gets snatches of news from the radio, from intermittent phone calls, and so on but we spend much of the book tracking forward through Els’ life and seeing what brought him to this point.
The thing is, I don’t want that to sound like it’s a bad thing. The “Biohacker Bach” plot is merely a device to deliver us an examination of the scope of music over the last century – classical music in particular, although all music more generally – and how we interact with it. How music can elevate, inspire, and soothe – or how it can destroy, denude, and obliterate. This is a book of ideas wrapped up in a fiction delivery package, only it makes no outward claims to delivering said ideas. Instead, when you’ve found yourself snugly enraptured by the prose, you realize that the ideas have already made their way inside and you’re being changed by them. Is that a disease? Is that a virus? It might not be an organism but ideas, music… they’re quite similar things, when you think about it.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The end brought me back to Earth a little after the flights of prose and music from the first 7/8ths of the book – the plot, as incidental as it might’ve been, needed resolution and that resolution had to connect to the things we previously read. But I wept, openly on the subway, at the beauty of several passages in this book – all of them relating to the experience of music. But, then, hasn’t that happened to you with an actual song? The tremor in your heart when the piano cuts out and John sings “I heard the news today, oh boy” – or that inescapable pulse that rocks your hips when Prince hits that E9sus4 chord and drawls out “kiss” – or the vacancy of sound when an orchestra careens from full speed ahead into sudden stillness. The writing here captures those unique sensations in a way that you sometimes think words might never be able to achieve. It’s something else.