Nobody likes to feel stupid.

So when you read a book that is frankly above your head, it’s tempting to feign understanding and even enjoyment. Especially when the project of the whole thing starts to sink in about 91% of the way through.

“Why not pretend you got it the whole way through,” says a warm gravelly voice in your ear. “There’s clearly some talent in here, so pretend you were all over it. Look, the reviews all say how clever it is.”

But, readers, the Room of Joy is a circle of trust, so in the spirit of honesty, Richard Powers’ Orfeo is a bit of a nightmare.

Powers is clearly a highly intelligent author. He has a background in the dual themes of the book – biotech and music – and that’s all been layered with further research. The novel tells the tale of Peters Els, an ageing avant-garde composer who turns to bioengineering as a hobby in his old age. Surprised at home by the police, who wrongly jump to the conclusion that there is something sinister in his sophisticated home set up, he goes somewhat inexplicably on the run. The novel blends the story of his flight with the story of his life, and gradually his flight becomes the opportunity to weave the fraying ends of his life back together. But this human summary doesn’t capture the complexity of the text. What’s he’s actually been up to is seriously abstract, and a bit much for a small head like mine: composing in DNA, breaking compositions into binary and then altering bacterial structures to capture his music in heavily coded life. There isn’t a great deal of heavy biochemistry, but there’s considerably too much for me.

The second (and more dominant) theme of the book is music. As an ignoramus in the avant-garde music scene of the 1960s (or any decade, indeed) there is a certain fascination in Powers’s exploration of a mindset that wants to push the boundaries of music beyond melody, beauty, enjoyment, into something that’s only successful if it’s a horror to listen to. But it’s a cold, spiky, cerebral approach to music, and this coldness seeps into the book. Warmth comes from Power’s astonishing “ekphrasis” (a new one to me – that’s the description of a work of art within another work of art, in this case music.) Powers devotes thousands upon thousands of words to incredibly detailed, bar-by-bar accounts of pieces of music. It’s deeply impressive, and amazing in a ‘how can he do that’ sort of way. And for a classical philistine like me it’s probably marginally more interesting than sitting through one of these pieces. But impressive doesn’t necessarily make for good reading, and I sighed with boredom even as I tipped my head to his abilities.

Reading around, it seems that the general consensus on Powers is that he’s too much head, not enough heart – talent and style but without the emotional connection. And while both head and heart are present, and heart breaks through towards the end, the weighting is too heavily on the head side of the scales for this to make enjoyable reading.


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