Somehow, I just missed Richard Powers. He’s 4 years younger than me, born in Evanston. After years in Thailand, his family was in DeKalb while I was an undergrad there. He finished high school the year I graduated…he could have come to my undergrad recital. He was in Urbana while I was in grad school in DeKalb. We somehow managed to miss each other. He’s clearly geekier about science than I am, but we have a shared love of music. He has become a much admired writer (that MacArthur Fellowship and all…), at least much admired by me.
Not by everyone. Some find his novels artificial, the plot movements mechanical. Brilliant, everyone seems to agree, but where’s the part we should care about? People have been saying this for nearly 20 years now. Mind you, I found Powers’s “Galatea 2.2” to be heart-breaking at times, not least when the main character (a writer named Richard Powers, recently returned from the Netherlands to Urbana) introduces a computer to the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.I laos thought that his 2003 novel, “The Time of Their Singing” was a remarkably deep and involving story of race in America, as well as a powerful statement about the healing powers of music. But people continue to complain about Powers’s writing.
His new novel “Orfeo” seems to be, like the Shostakovich 5th Symphony he so vividly describes in it, a response to just criticism. This time, Powers wants to really get inside his main character’s head, a composer named Peter Els. (The fact that he references, late in the book, the late Peter Lieberson, makes me wonder if Lieberson’s premature death prompted this work.) There are no chapters, and the book blips back and forth between past and present much as our own thoughts do. Els, before he decided to go into music, contemplated a degree in chemistry, so there’s that inner geek poking through again. And of course, having finally written a book that seems to veer completely away from the kinds of formalisms that bothered critics in the past, the New York Times Book Review raised the question of perhaps he had gone to far in the other direction in this book. Ugh. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…
I’ll not waste time revealing plot issues. I will only say that the book contains several passages in which musical works are described in meticulous, loving detail, and these are some of the most intriguing moments in the book, and the most revealing of the inner workings of the main character’s psyche and life-choices. It begins early on with him listening with his first girlfriend to Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder.” There is also a lengthy description about the creation and content of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Similarly, Powers’s 10-page account of his protagonist attending John Cage’s “Musicircus” in Urbana sounds like an eye-witness account, even though it would have taken place a decade before Powers lived there.Then there’s the Shostakovich mentioned above, as well as Harry Partch’s “Barstow: 8 Hitchhiker Transcriptions.”
The detailed descriptions of actual musical works add credence to the passages where Powers describes the fictional compositions of his protagonist. His description of Els’s “Borges Songs” makes me wonder if he did see my senior recital, because the combination of music and theater he attributes to the composer is precisely the kind of mash-up I was going for in those days. Or I wonder if, as a high school student, he might have seen the production of Marlowe’s “Dr.Faustus” I was in, because several of the theatrical moments he describes sound like they are straight out of that piece. The description of the Els opera “The Fowler’s Snare,” on the other hand, are not always as believable, occasionally giving way to hyperbole instead of specifics. In that case, one can detect that Powers is not describing an actual musical experience (which he can do brilliantly), but rather projecting a musical experience he wants us to imagine.
For this composer from the Midwest, “Orfeo” has an odd quality of “there but for the grace of God go I.” One of the many voices of authority in the novel mocks Els at one point as someone who is still pursuing beauty, an old-fashioned idea at best. I have to admit, fist thumping my chest, that I am guilty as charged, especially in my musical works, of a similar pursuit. Perhaps less like Orpheus, in search of his lost love in the Underworld, and more like Apollo, racing after a potential love, who seems to be turning into a tree just as my hand reaches her thigh.