Given that he’s been nominated for the Pulizer Prize you’d have thought I’d have read more Powers’ books then I have , but my only previous experience of his work came with ‘Gain’, which whilst I found beautifully written in places, a bit of a chore to read.
If I’m honest there were times reading Orfeo where some of that feeling was coming back to me, but in the end it was a book I enjoyed.
On the face of it the story is loosely about a College music professor who ends up on the run when the government decides he’s become a biotech terrorist. What is actually about is the choices we make in life about our ‘calling’ and centrally about music , and classical music in particular. For a long time he refuses to see any merit in any other. And Power writes exquisitely about music. He write about the notes, the tones the rise and falls and of course the sounds. I could pick hundreds of examples from the book but, he also just write generally about it: –
“Music, he’ll tell anyone who asks over the next fifty years, doesn’t mean things. It is things.”
“Music wasn’t about learning how to love. It was about learning what to disown and when to disown it. Even the most magnificent piece would end up as collateral damage in the endless war over taste.”
“The way he’d remembered it, everything happened in that shared glance. On that downbeat, he left a wife who’d given him a decade of unearned patience, abandoned a daughter who wanted only to make things with him, and stepped out into free fall. For nothing, for music, for a chance to make a little noise in this world. A noise that no one needed to hear.”
“Music and viruses both trick their hosts into copying them.”
“All my life I thought I knew what music was. But I was like a kid who confuses his grandfather with God.”
Here is a central character – Richard Els – who believes music should be difficult and hard and that obvious melody are a failure. Or at least he does through passages of his life. He devotes his life to finding the perfect sounds that will change the world, but not in popularist way. He is a man with few loves and even fewer friends. He reminded me of a less likable Anne Tyler central character. And indeed it is these few other characters, Maddy, Clara, Sarah, Bonner who help to flesh out this man whose life’s priorities cause his undoing.
It is an engaging book, but one that I may have abandoned had it not been for my own love of music and my own fascination with the links between music and science and the regular quotable lines relating to music of all kinds:
“At his click, the room filled with a vivacious, pitchcorrected, and jaw-droppingly sunny little song. On Els’s screen, a thirteen-year-old singer woke up, went to the bus stop, joined her friends in a convertible, and visited a suburban house where an upper-middle-class teen party was in full swing”
“Air raid announcing the end of the world. A driving motor rhythm in the drums propelled virtuosic parallel passages in the guitars and bass. The song came on like a felon released from multiple life sentences. The melodic machete went straight through Els’s skin. The song was one long, joyous jackhammer assertion of tonic. Surprise was not its goal, and the pattern laid down in the first four measures drove the tune on in a storm surge. But after two minutes, it sprouted a hallucination in the relative minor floating above the thrash, and for several notes Els thought the band, in a fit of real anarchy, had thrown Chopin’s E Minor Prelude—the “Vision”—into the cement mixer …” describing an Anthrax song.
I ended this book marveling at some of the writing but ultimately not loving Els or the book.