Progress at last! Update on Richard Powers’ Orfeo (by Jill)


I emailed Bethany on Friday morning and said that I was going to make Orfeo my bitch—I sat down at 8:30 in the morning with a cup of coffee, with no TV or laptop readily available, and I tried to ignore my phone as best as I could. And while I didn’t quite succeed in making it my bitch (I’m not sure what I even meant by that other than trying to be funny about my failure at getting anywhere with this damn book), I did make some progress, and I’m much happier with this book now that I’ve gotten more into the meat of it.

So let’s see. When last I actually said anything about Orfeo, Peter Els had gone on the run because of a misunderstanding about his home microbiology lab. He is not a terrorist. He’s a composer who, for some reason, decides that he wants to insert plasmid DNA into Serratia marcescens that encodes a particular melody, thus making music immortal. I have no idea what melody he wants to make immortal, and I’m not sure it’s important, but I suspect it might be. Els goes for a walk in the morning, goes home, finds Homeland Security raiding his house, and he drives off to go teach a history of twentieth century music class at the local senior center. Coincidentally, one of his students is his former therapist/lover, who gives him her cell phone and directions to her family’s vacation home, and tells him to lay low for a few days. Of course, when she learns the extent of Els’ predicament she calls her phone and tells him to come home and turn himself in immediately. That’s pretty much all that has happened in the present-day storyline. Powers has been spending most of the novel thus far giving us Peter Els’ backstory, which has been quite interesting, though I suspect that the sixties were a weird, weird time based on some of the music he composed during graduate school.

I marked a couple of passages I wanted to share with the group, but now I’m not sure why I marked them, or what I felt that sharing them would accomplish. I hate it when that happens. The first one describes an interaction Peter had with one of his undergraduate mentors, in which said mentor makes Peter play a key on the piano, and tell him what notes he hears in addition to the note he played. This seems like utter nonsense to me, but I guess this is a thing. Anyway, Powers says, “Higher still, there hides a major third, then a minor one, and out above that, the entire harmonic series. Els knows the sequence; he could cheat with impunity. But he’s still a beginner in his own life, saddled with virulent idealism. He won’t claim any pitch he can’t in fact hear (81).” It’s the last two sentences that caught my attention, the virulent idealism concept. I just think that’s a lovely, truthful description of how people can be at the beginning of their education in a discipline they truly love.

The other passage is a long one, about a syndrome called “chronic focal difficulty,” which may or may not be real, especially since when I just googled it the first result that came up was the Washington Post’s review of Orfeo. Anyway, Powers says that there was a study that took place over four decades which showed that there have been “significant declines in how well people could filter out distractions and attend to simple tasks. The country’s collective concentration was simply shot. People couldn’t hold a thought or pursue a short-term goal for anywhere near as long as they could a few years before, back in the waning days of analog existence (84).” I found this an interesting concept, and even if Powers made it up its roots are in truth. We are constantly bombarded with noise and stimuli from all different directions. Right now, my iPhone, my laptop, my husband’s iPhone, my husband’s iPad, the landline, the TV, could all go off at any minute in a cacophony of sound. The best part is that now we both have our phones linked to our larger internet devices, so when the iPhone dings, the bigger internet connectivity device also dings. Because heaven forbid we miss a text or an email. I think it’s no small irony that in order to truly get my brain into this book’s world I needed to actually unplug from my internet devices and the TV and spend some time with words on a page.

More to come in the next few days.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill, Richard Powers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Progress at last! Update on Richard Powers’ Orfeo (by Jill)

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    About hearing the case ther note thing: reference to the physics of music. The strength of various overtones is what gives a note timbre, ie how you know a piano is playing the note and not a violin, or harpsichord. I guess some people can hear the overtones better than others. I only vaguely ever think of it when I hear a gong, or something like that, where you can more easily hear what sounds like two notes at once. I have never been asked what other notes I hear, like in this passage. Some people are bigger fanatics about things like this, I guess. To me, this sounds like an interesting book. I will have to check it out and make it MY bitch!

  2. badkitty1016 says:

    Maria I was hoping you would weigh in on the music stuff in this book! It might be right up your alley. 🙂

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