Orfeo by Richard Powers. I have a real problem with this novel, quite apart that is from its ridiculous dust jacket. The narrative is strong, the adventure quite engrossing but the core is undecipherable, unless of course you are a musician. If like me you have not got perfect pitch and barely know the difference between a quaver and a crotchet, a tone or a semi-tone, then a great deal of this book will be in a language you simply do not understand.
I had a similar problem with The Blazing World. Siri Hustvedt was writing about art works that never existed, but it was possible to imagine that they might have been. Richard Powers is writing about music which not only has not been written but might never be written by an American composer, Peter Els. Els is on the run from the FBI in a post 9/11 America awash with biotech terrorism threats. Why? Because he has been “composing” music with the genome sequences.
The whole novel is full of musical references: Mahler, Shostakovich, Mozart, Bartok, Bach, or everyone (or every instrument) you have ever, and never, heard of actually. So if you don’t know Strauss’ Four Last Songs, or Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, or the Shostakovich 5th well, you will be in a foreign country, they hear things differently there. Of course, you could stream all the references on your smart phone…if that floats your boat, as they say.
I was engaged for about half of the time, then on every other page I was lost. This is undoubtedly a clever book, much of the prose is lyrical, and Els’ journey long but I suspect its true audience, musicians to be precise, number only in thousands. Is that enough? No, I think not.
So what was my quarrel with the cover? This is a book about the internet, tweets, texts and GPS, and music as I have said before – so why does the cover hark back to the good old days of cut out newspaper (or in this case musical score) to get the message across. It doesn’t make sense.
The title? Orpheus was a mythological musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greece. The major stories about him are centred on his ability to charm all living things and even stones with his music, his failed attempt to save his wife, Eurydice, from the Underworld, and his death at the hands of those who could not hear his divine music. Peter Els doesn’t quite fill the bill, but I do understand the drift – certainly the last part about people not understanding his divine music, I am afraid I didn’t either.