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spacer By Richard Powers
W.W. Norton; 369 pages, $26.95

Books Orfeo lg 1014

For his eleventh novel, Richard Powers has created a doozy of a character in Peter Els, a seventy-year-old composer of experimental music with a home lab where he toys around with a potentially deadly strain of the common household bacteria serratia marcescens. “We’ve received a police report about bacterial cultures in the house,” say bewildered Joint Security Task Force agents Coldberg and Mendoza, looking around at Els’s beakers, tubing, petri dishes, mini-refrigerator, and thermal cycler. “It’s a hobby,” Els says. Just what sort of a hobby this is takes the rest of Powers’s strange, humorous book to resolve.  

Els — the “bioterrorist Bach” — is the sort of composer who once wrote a “hermetic, harmonically adventuresome song cycle for piano, clarinet, theremin, and solo soprano on texts from Kafka’s The Great Wall of China, performed twice, seven years apart, for a dozen puzzled listeners each time … more people onstage than in the audience.” Els spent his early years with the “happenings” crowd — think John Cage and the like — and now he spends his time obsessing over Schumann’s Scenes of Childhood, Partch’s Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, Peter Grimes, Berg’s Violin Concerto and Lieberson’s Neruda Songs. Here’s how Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony sounds in his head: “Tunes and counter tunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. Five viral strands propagate, infecting the air with runaway joy.” 

This is a perplexing book — and a nonlinear one, constructed almost like an experimental piece of music itself. If you’ve seen the TV show Damages, in which each episode repeats part of the last episode, filling in a missing spot in the chronology, you’ll have some sense of what Powers’s Orfeo is like. The narrative darts around the brilliant but possibly insane mind of Els, going back and forth in time, touching on episodes in his life — his compositions, failed marriage, childhood, studies in chemistry. There are no chapters, but sections are set off by short, often cryptic utterances like “The only harmless works are sterilized, and the only safe listeners are dead.” (The meaning of these becomes clear toward the end.) 

It’s a dark story, but there is humor. Els composes a historical opera about Germany’s sixteenth-century siege and Münster Rebellion, when John Leiden and other radical Anabaptists were tortured and killed. First, he is so ensconced in the experimental-music bubble that he doesn’t know until it’s too late that the subject of this opera has already been written — Meyerbeer’s Prophète. Second, the opera has its premiere in 1993, just after scores of people have been killed in the Waco siege, in Texas. “Watching TV reports, Els realizes he’s spent the last three years composing this drama.” Horrified, he tries to cancel the performances, but the opera gets more than the usual publicity, and The Fowler’s Snare becomes the great career success he never wanted to have. The novel’s ending — involving a trip to Barstow, California, and one of the best Twitter account names ever — is a good one, and worth the wait. It wraps in several meta-themes — human miscommunication, connections between music and science, and the role of technology in modern life — that are hallmarks of Powers’s previous books. 

Orfeo is a work of fiction, but it’s oddly timely and relevant. In June, the Metropolitan Opera canceled a planned HD simulcast of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, citing concerns that it could “fan global anti-Semitism.” Like Peter Els’s The Fowler’s Snare, real-life opera can reflect the news — or create more of it. Meanwhile, in June, the Centers for Disease Control disclosed that eighty-one employees may have been exposed to live anthrax, and that pathogens had inappropriately left high-security labs four other times since 2006. Powers might not be happy about these coincidences and their parallels in Orfeo, but I suspect he’s not surprised. spacer 


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