Friday, June 20, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Orfeo by Richard Powers

Since I covered Generosity last week, I will cover Richard Powers' latest novel, Orfeo, for this week. In Generosity, Powers explores the idea of someone being unnaturally and inexplicably happy, and if it were possible to extract something from such a person in order to share it with the rest of us. In Orfeo, I found a story that dealt not only with music, but the idea that perhaps music can be written into DNA and actually played. Yeah, it was baffling stuff.

The Situation: Peter Els, now in his seventies, spends his days walking his faithful golden retriever, Fidelio, and running experiments in his lab. Peter has retired from teaching, and was once a composer in a previous life, having attained modest success with an opera he composed with a friend he hasn't spoken to in over a decade. Now he fights off both loneliness and senility by listening to music, taking care of Fidelio, and tampering with science. Growing up, music and chemistry were his two competing loves. He was good at both, and honestly liked both, even though chemistry was a major he chose because his stepfather wouldn't pay for him to get a degree in music. Both have shaped Peter's life, and even at 70 he hasn't given up on either.

The Problem: The lab that Peter runs his experiments in is at his home. He bought the equipment himself and set up his own microbiology lab where he messes with DNA. It's his hobby, just like music, and he sees no harm in it. It is very probable that no one would have ever known or found out about the homemade lab until Peter either died or moved, but he makes the mistake of calling 911 to report Fidelio's death, even though he was there when it happened and knows there was no foul play involved. When the police visit his house and find an illegal lab in his home where he is messing with DNA, Peter is told not to leave town for a few days as the officers report what they find. Soon, every piece of equipment in Peter's house is confiscated, and when he panics and runs off, the media turns him into the next bioterrorist threatening our country's safety. Peter knows he meant no harm, as do his friends and family. He was simply attempting to compose his greatest piece yet. But the authorities want to bring him in. And as Peter runs, the book tells the story of how Peter's life led up to this point.

Genre, Themes, History: I was tempted to place this book under the heading of science fiction, but I just stuck with contemporary instead. I also think this book could almost be placed under historical fiction since, while the reader is never given any actual years or dates as Peter's life story is being told, it does mark time by the wars and great tragedies that have occurred throughout history. Both music and chemistry play a massive part in Peter's formative years, but it is really music that he ends up devoting most of his time and energy to during his adult years, only to return to chemistry later in life. And much like the protagonist in Generosity, Peter is fairly insecure and ends up bending under more powerful personalities. And when it comes to women, Peter is even less sure of himself, although he does manage to get married and have a daughter. But it is music that would prove to be his true love, but even in that he can't seem to be sure of himself and confident of his own talent, no matter how much his friends and fellow musicians assure him of his brilliance. And even when Peter is on the brink of very real success, he is the one who sabotages it and ruins his chances for widespread fame. There are two stories in this book, as there is what is happening in present day, and also Peter's life story, but ultimately it is mostly about music. Musicians, especially composers, will probably understand it better than most any other kind of reader.

My Verdict: If I were more into music and knew more about it, I probably would have enjoyed this book more. But instead, I found myself bored through various long stretches of the story. Peter is just so into music that being just a music lover wouldn't be enough to keep the average reader from getting lost in everything that goes on in the story. Also, instead of Powers writing about what is going on with Peter in the present day in between telling his life story, I think I would have preferred if the book was either about Peter's present circumstances, or about his life growing up, not both. Whenever I was reading about one, I was wishing I could skip ahead to the other. With that being said, parts of the story are pretty solid and interesting, but it often felt like the author wanted to write about one thing, but decided there wasn't enough to make a book out of it, so he added other elements, therefore making it longer than it felt like it should be.

Favorite Moment: When Peter calls for Fidelio out of habit, forgetting she has passed away.

Favorite Character: Even though she isn't in most of the book, I think my favorite character is Peter's daughter, Sara, whom he refers to as his best work.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Richard Powers' previous novel, Generosity, which I actually liked a little better. To me, Generosity is a little more interesting and easier to relate to.

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