Finally finished! Final Thoughts on Richard Powers’ Orfeo (by Jill)


It feels like I’ve been reading Orfeo for a year, but it’s only been three weeks. It just seems like longer because Bethany and I rebooted our post-a-day challenge in April, so three days a week I have to come up with something to say that’s fit to be published on the internet, and my slow progress through this book has made it more than slightly difficult to make that happen. So I apologize for all the lists of things I’ve been doing and the lack of actual book blogging going on on my end of things lately. Hopefully that will be over for a while as of now.

So in case anyone forgot, Orfeo is the story of Peter Els, retired composer, music professor, and possible biological terrorist. The whole mess starts when his Golden Retriever, Fidelio, dies, and Peter freaks out and calls the police. When the police show up they see that he has a small microbiology lab in his house, and that alerts Homeland Security. Peter goes on the run, not because he was actually up to bioterrorism, but because what he was actually up to was so absurd no one would believe him. He wants to encode a piece of music (we never do find out which one, though his daughter Sara does at the end, and she seems pleased with his choice) into a plasmid (a round piece of DNA) and insert that plasmid into a bacteria, Serratia marsescens. When he evacuates his tiny Pennsylvania college town, he goes on a tour of the country. First he goes to Indiana to visit his alma mater; then to St. Louis to see his ex-wife, Maddy; then to Arizona to see his former collaborator and erstwhile best friend Richard Bonner (and what does it mean that Richard Powers named one of the primary characters in the novel Richard? Anything?) at an old folks home; and then north to see his daughter Sara in Washington (I think). The bulk of the narrative takes place in the past, detailing Peter’s life and career up to the present day.

I never did notice any commonalities between Peter’s story and the myth or Orpheus. The name does come up towards the end of the book when one of Peter’s students shows him something she wrote using composition software on her laptop using “the program that turns an average tunesmith into Orpheus (319).” But that’s the only time I remember the titular Greek being mentioned outright. I thought I’d figure the Orpheus connection out by reading the interview with Powers that came with the book (I got this one through Indiespensible last year) tonight. And you know what I learned? I learned that yes, there are vague parallels with Peter Els’ life and that of Orpheus beyond just that they were both composers, and I also learned that Richard Powers is too smart for me. Like really smart. So smart his level of conversation is so high I can’t figure it all out. I can’t for the life of me tell you how undereducated I feel after reading that interview. But now my goal is to read and understand all of Richard Powers’ novels, and to accomplish at least part of this goal before I end up in Purgatory.

I want to share a passage here because it describes the moment Peter realizes that there is music in nature. It’s probably my favorite paragraph in the whole book. “In the fall of 2009, while fast-walking Fidelio around the long loop of the arboretum, Els watched a wet oak leaf fly through the air and stick to his windbreaker. He peeled it free, studied its surface, and saw rhythms inscribed in the branching veins. He sat down, a little dazed, on a boulder at the side of the path. His hand grazed the rock’s surface, and the pits played pitches like a piano roll on his skin. He looked up: music floated across the sky in cloud banks, and songs skittered in twigs down the staggered shingles of a nearby roof. All around him, a massive, secret chorus written in extended alternate notation lay ripe for transcribing. His own music had no corner on obscurity. Almost every tune that the world had to offer would forever be heard by almost no one. And that fact gladdened him more than anything he’d ever written…. The dog splashed into the water, her paws churning up a pattern of dotted rhythms and accented attacks. Duets, trios, even a brash sextet spread outward across the pond’s surface. The tiny maelstrom of intersecting ripples contained enough data to encode an entire opera. Find the right converting key and the score might tell any musical story there was: Man uses tunes to bargain with Hell. Man trades self for a shot at the lost chord. Man hears his fate in the music of chance (331).” Isn’t that lovely? And because of this paragraph I’m almost willing to forgive Powers for lapsing into the second person for the last few pages of the book. Almost.

The ending is not a neat and tidy one. I can honestly tell you that I have no idea how things turn out for Peter Els. I do know that he manages to make amends with the three most important people in his life, and that he sets the record straight with the public, via Twitter, of all things. But beyond that, I have my suspicions, but no real knowledge. As I’m sure I’ve said before, I prefer the endings of novels I read to be non-ambiguous, and love a good happy ending. But with this book, I find myself considering the possibilities for Peter, and am okay with any one of them; because sometimes it’s not the end that matters. Sometimes it’s the journey there that’s the impotant thing.

I ultimately did enjoy Orfeo quite a lot, though it seemed like it took forever for me to get to that point. I don’t entirely feel that my trouble making progress with this book is entirely a book problem. I actually think it’s mostly a Jill problem. April has been busy in both work and home life and I haven’t had the right mindset to work through this book very often. When I have been able to spend time and concentrate on this book, it’s been borderline transcendent. I think Richard Powers is some sort of genius Renaissance Man and I am looking forward to reading more of his work some day. While I’m on vacation, with no TV, no internet, no distractions, and a big pot of coffee.  I definitely recommend this book, especially for music-lovers or anyone looking for a bit of a challenge.  Don’t read Orfeo in the middle of a busy time.  Pick it up when you aren’t going to have many distractions, and when you are wide awake.  Don’t be like me and try to read it at the end of a long, long day.  I don’t think this is fiction to be read in bed.

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

4 Responses to Finally finished! Final Thoughts on Richard Powers’ Orfeo (by Jill)

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    It is waiting for me at the library. 😉

  2. Maria Caswell says:

    Well, I have been reading Orfeo, and am quite caught up in it. I was afraid it would take me weeks as well, but I think I can get it done before leaving for Ireland next week. It is completely suffused, imbued, no, saturated with musical vocabulary and repertoire and thought, so I am really enjoying that. More when I finish! 🙂

    • badkitty1016 says:

      I’m glad you like it! I think if things had been less hectic for me while I was reading it I would have gotten through it a lot faster. And I’m sure knowing about 1000 times more about music than I do helps too! 🙂

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