Orfeo [NOOK Book]


A New York Times Bestseller

The National Book Award–winning author of The Echo Maker delivers his most emotionally charged novel to date, inspired by the myth of Orpheus.

"If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century…he'd probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big," wrote Margaret Atwood (New ...

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A New York Times Bestseller

The National Book Award–winning author of The Echo Maker delivers his most emotionally charged novel to date, inspired by the myth of Orpheus.

"If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century…he'd probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big," wrote Margaret Atwood (New York Review of Books). Indeed, since his debut in 1985 with Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers has been astonishing readers with novels that are sweeping in range, dazzling in technique, and rich in their explorations of music, art, literature, and technology.

In Orfeo, Powers tells the story of a man journeying into his past as he desperately flees the present. Composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police on his doorstep. His home microbiology lab—the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to find music in surprising patterns—has aroused the suspicions of Homeland Security. Panicked by the raid, Els turns fugitive. As an Internet-fueled hysteria erupts, Els—the "Bioterrorist Bach"—pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey. Through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, Els hatches a plan to turn this disastrous collision with the security state into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them. The result is a novel that soars in spirit and language by a writer who “may be America’s most ambitious novelist” (Kevin Berger, San Francisco Chronicle).

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Peter Els is an eccentric, musically gifted genius who inadvertently becomes the target of government security forces and is forced to hit the road and hide. The novel maintains two tracks. The first traces Peter's past, from his early discovery of his innate intellectual gifts through his educational career and life as a composer of unique and largely unappreciated music. In his past life, Peter married a fellow artist, and they moved to the Boston area, had a daughter, and were happy, but the pressures of family life clashed with his inner artist, and the marriage broke up. The second track finds the 70-year-old Peter in the present, living a reclusive life in a small Pennsylvania college town, when a misunderstanding leads the police to his door. Peter has been experimenting with DNA alteration and disease-spreading bacteria in relation to music, which is what has the feds on full alert. VERDICT This latest from National Book Award winner Powers (The Echo Maker) is concerned with advanced scientific technologies and musical theory that allow the author to riff on arcane vocabularies, but the stories of the Elses and their friends provide another, more human dimension to this very well-written and philosophical work. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
The New Yorker
“Powers deftly dramatizes the obsession that has defined Els’s life: ‘How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul?'”
Jim Holt - New York Times Book Review
“Powers is prodigiously talented. Besides being fearfully erudite, he writes lyrical prose, has a seductive sense of wonder and is an acute observer of social life…. Why did I pick it up eagerly each day and find myself moist-eyed when I came to its last pages? That, I think, has everything to do with Powers’s skill at putting us into the mind of his protagonist.”
Elizabeth Sile - Esquire
“Powers proves, once again, that he's a master of the novel with Orfeo, an engrossing and expansive read that is just as much a profile of a creative, obsessive man as it is an escape narrative.”
Harvey Freedenberg - Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Orfeo is that rare novel truly deserving of the label ‘lyrical'…. Richard Powers offers a profound story whose delights are many and lasting.”
Scott Korb - Slate
“Orfeo reveals how a life, and the narrative of a life, accumulates, impossibly, infinitely, from every direction…. In this retelling of the Orpheus myth Powers also manages enchantment.”
Troy Jollimore - Chicago Tribune
“Orfeo… establishes beyond any doubt that the novel is very much alive.”
David Ulin - Los Angeles Times
“Magnificent and moving.”
Dan Cryer - Newsday
“Extraordinary…[Powers's] evocations of music, let alone lost love, simply soar off the page.”
Angela Carone - San Diego Magazine
“Ambitious and profound.”
John Domini - Philly.com
“Will take your breath away.”
Tom LeClair - Christian Science Monitor
“Since reviewing Richard Powers's second novel, Prisoner's Dilemma, in 1988, I've had to keep track of his age so that, when asked who to read, I can say, "Powers. He's the most important living American novelist under" whatever age he happens to be at the time. Now he's 56, and I believe only (in alphabetical order) DeLillo, Morrison, Pynchon, and Roth—all two decades older—stand above him. Of novelists in Powers's generation with whom he is often compared—Franzen, Vollmann, Wallace—none equals Powers's combination of consistent production, intellectual range, formal ingenuity, and emotional effect.”
Ted Gioia - San Francisco Gate
“Few authors of contemporary fiction can surpass Powers.”
Tom LeClair - Barnes and Noble Review
“Of novelists in Powers's generation with whom he is often compared … none equals Powers's combination of consistent production, intellectual range, formal ingenuity, and emotional effect.”
The Economist
“Will transport readers.”
Adam Kirsch - Boston Globe
“Biology and music, past and present, come together in a clever, explosive resolution.”
Ron Hogan - The Daily Beast
“While it starts off with a thriller plotline—falsely accused bioterrorist on the run—Richard Powers's Orfeo constantly shifts gears.”
Jim Holt - The New York Times Book Review
“Powers is prodigiously talented, he writes lyrical prose, has a seductive sense of wonder and is an acute observer of social life.”
Heller McAlpin - NPR
“Bravo, Richard Powers, for hitting so many high notes with Orfeo and contributing to the fraction of books that really matter.”
David Ulin - The Los Angeles Times
“Magnificent and moving.”
Tom LeClair - The Christian Science Monitor
“Of novelists in Powers's generation with whom he is often compared—Franzen, Vollmann, Wallace—none equals Powers's combination of consistent production, intellectual range, formal ingenuity, and emotional effect.”
Ted Gioia - The San Francisco Chronicle
“For sheer bravado in constructing sentences, few authors of contemporary fiction can surpass Powers…One of his finest yet.”
Keith Staskiewicz - Entertainment Weekly
“Powers’ writing is complex and heady without being head-achy, and his synesthetic descriptions of finding melodies in the mundane are full of their own kind of music.”
Andrew Leonard - Salon
“An extraordinary feat… makes the inaccessible comprehensible.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Since reviewing Richard Powers's second novel, Prisoner's Dilemma, in 1988, I've had to keep track of his age so that, when asked who to read, I can say, "Powers. He's the most important living American novelist under" whatever age he happens to be at the time. Now he's fifty-six, and I believe only (in alphabetical order) DeLillo, Morrison, Pynchon, and Roth — all two decades older — stand above him. Of novelists in Powers's generation with whom he is often compared — Franzen, Vollmann, Wallace — none equals Powers's combination of consistent production, intellectual range, formal ingenuity, and emotional effect.

Powers has now published eleven novels and won the National Book Award for The Echo Maker in 2007, and yet he remains unknown and intimidating territory to many readers. Orfeo seems designed to reach a wider audience and is an excellent introduction to his concerns in earlier books. Powers novels usually achieve their depth through parallax, splicing together two eras or several stories or different kinds of information: World War I in Holland and contemporary Boston in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance; programmers developing a virtual reality cave in Seattle and a hostage struggling to survive in Beirut in Plowing the Dark; two love stories, Bach, and genetics in two separate decades in The Gold Bug Variations.

Orfeo is different. It tells the life of one contemporary character, Peter Els, a seventy-year-old composer and retired music professor; initially fits the now-established genre of the bioterrorism thriller; and follows a linear plot that transpires over a couple of weeks. A chemistry student in college, Peter has bought equipment that allows him to engineer pathogenic bacteria in his Pennsylvania home. When Homeland Security hears of this and raids, Peter flees, first hiding out alone and then seeking out persons from his past. His former therapist and lover gives him a smartphone with a GPS to help his flight. He former wife in St. Louis gives him money. His old collaborator in Phoenix lets Peter have his car; and his daughter, who has given him her attention over the last decade despite being abandoned as a child, offers to shelter him in San Francisco. This escape-and-return plot occurs at the end of Prisoner's Dilemma, but Orfeo has more narrative momentum and suspense — What is Peter's plan for the bacteria? Will he be caught? — than other Powers novels. I can almost see a slimmed-down Frank Langella as Peter Els in the westering road-trip movie.

Orfeo is different but not so different. During the interstate stretches between stops, Powers constructs a biography that shares features with other protagonists' lives in "Powers World," a phrase the author uses in two novels. Like the character named "Powers" in Galatea 2.2, Peter attends college to study science and then disappoints his father by switching to art — to music. Also like "Powers," he falls in love at the University of Illinois, moves with his lover to Boston (where one becomes a museum guard), dedicates himself to his art, and loses his lover. Then, like the biologist Ressler in The Gold Bug Variations, who gives up science at Illinois for music composition, Peter goes to New York and takes marginal jobs. He has a little success with his experimental compositions, but Peter eventually withdraws for a decade to a Unabomber-like existence in a New Hampshire cabin before taking a teaching job at a small college in Pennsylvania.

Although Peter has contacts with various movements in music — John Cage's "musicircus" at Illinois, mixed-media extravaganzas, downtown New York minimalism in the 1980s, computer- generated performances — his story is personal, specific. Orfeo and Peter have plenty of ideas about music, but Peter is primarily a complex individual, grappling for decades with families lost and friendships tested, secondarily a representative artist whose vocation can't support him in an age of mass media. His life is sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, occasionally comic, and eventually sad. That's when Peter starts composing new bacteria.

As Orfeo illustrates, Powers's work is most fundamentally about recombination. Genetics is the source and model, mentioned in his first book, most explicit in The Gold Bug Variations, crucial in his last novel, Generosity, and a force in Orfeo, but the repetition and variation of genetics are also present in other constituents of Powers World: musical history in Orfeo, computer programming in several books, even the flight of cranes in The Echo Maker. And the eleven novels, as I've suggested with just a few examples, are themselves recombinant, twisting like the double helix character types and common themes from one novel to another, turning and returning to situations, examining similar lives from different perspectives.

The importance of Powers that I so baldly asserted earlier issues from the variety, interpretive power, and contemporaneity of these perspectives, which are usually scientific. Game theory, chaos theory, cognitive connectionism, oncology, relativity physics, and evolutionary psychology are some of the disciplines Powers employs to understand — and expand — what it means to be human. In The Echo Maker, he establishes deep analogies between neurology and ecology. Put simply, Powers knows more than other novelists of his generation and knows how to use his prodigious expertise to place substantial, thoughtful characters in "the intricate, ingenious forms" (to quote Peter) that Powers's best fictions create to imitate the information they contain. In Generosity a character runs through a list of words deriving from the old Latin gens: gene, genius, ingenuity, and generosity are the ones most applicable to Powers and his World. In Orfeo it's bacteria that Powers knows as both a basis of human life and, in certain drug-resistant mutations, a danger to human lives. For this book, Powers seems to have been reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Powers gives Peter and readers just enough information to establish the threat of bioterrorism and to spring the plot, but bacteria function more as a metaphor than a full-fledged intellectual perspective of the kind I've mentioned. Listening to his car radio, Peter finds the coarsening of discourse and music an all-over, all-the-time phenomenon like bacteria. Equally pervasive, invisible, and invasive is the government's ability to trace a citizen's interests and movements through surveillance of his entries into the electronic web. But the primary target of Powers's bacteriological metaphor is the omnipresent "growth industry" in fear that an American media environment of constant threat nourishes like food left too long out of the refrigerator. Powers uses the phrase "Age of Bacteria," but Age of Panic might have been truer to the contemporary reportage he incorporates into Orfeo. In mythic terms, the cultural critique in the novel pits Orpheus, the master of calming music, versus Pan, the god of mass fear.

For all of Powers's knowledge of and respect for up-to-the-minute sciences, he ultimately suspects their tendency to philosophical reductionism and to harmful technological application. One of Peter's first compositions used the closing sections of Whitman's "Song of Myself." Late in the novel, Powers has Peter return to those lines and identify with Whitman, an artist who welcomed the influence of sciences but finally celebrated the open road and open — but still inviolate — self. Whitman also nicely contributes to the panic and bacterial themes of Orfeo, for one of the fearless poet's last lines, which Powers quotes twice, is: "If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles."

From Powers, a novel entitled Orfeo is no surprise. In Galatea 2.2, a character points out that "Orphic Rewards" is an anagram of the author's name, and Powers mentions numerous operas about Orpheus in The Time of Our Singing, his novel about African-American musicians. Think of Orpheus as an example of repetition and variation: he wanted to save Eurydice from the underworld and repeat their earthly love but failed because he looked back. Like Orpheus, many protagonists in Powers World are frustrated saviors in contemporary hells. The doctor and nurse in the inner-city hospital of Operation Wandering Soul try to save the lives of very sick children; the protagonists of Generosity attempt to prevent an unnaturally happy woman from exploitation by Faustian genetic engineers.

Peter is also a would-be savior, a foiler of death. He describes a youthful composition in both Orphic and Powers terms: "He borrowed from voices dead for centuries and made them chatter posthumously. And he repeated, recombined, and looped everything until the whole was wide enough to stretch from dawn to dusk." Discouraged by the tepid reception of his early music, Peter writes a song his daughter and wife love and thinks, "A dozen such tunes over the course of a career, and he might even have saved lives." In the novel's present, Peter wants to somehow encode beautiful music in bacteria to save it and, more unlikely, save listeners from the barbaric noise constantly in their ears. In keeping with the principle of recombination, Peter's bacterium of choice — "Serratia marcescens. It looked like blood seeping out of old food" — was discovered by Pythagoras long ago. The red bacterium is also something of a red herring in the plot, which I won't spoil like the food.

The "Orphic Reward" of the novel is less in soteriological music than in Peter's cross-country journey: the mythic musician as senior citizen looking back on and attempting to make amends with loved ones — mostly women — from his past whom, like Eurydice, Peter betrayed or allowed to drift away from him. The protagonists in Powers World are usually younger than their creator. In Orfeo Power adds a character fourteen years his senior to the ever-increasing rogues gallery of guilty old men — such as William Gass's music professor in Middle C — that American novelists have been assembling in recent years. Powers has been criticized for imagining protagonists who do not "live" or who elicit little affect. If life is motion, as Faulkner said, Peter moves around and should move readers with his desires and regrets — but even more with his late-life spark and reconnections. Powers has a novelist in Generosity say, "A story with no end or impediment is no story at all." Orfeo has one impediment and two endings. For readers without considerable knowledge of symphonic, chamber, and operatic music, Powers's descriptions of performances, both actual and invented by him for Peter, will be difficult, necessary to communicate Peter's passion but still an impediment the author attempts to finesse by describing listeners' emotional responses along with the structure of the music. Here is an example, Peter listening to Steve Reich's Proverb in a student café:

The echoing lines slow to half speed, reprising the song's first measures. Augmentation, it was called once, worlds ago, before MIDI. The two-part canon turns into a trio. Choir-boy clarity thickens, then smears out as thin as gold leaf?. The couple at the next table freeze, alerted. The woman's soul is all up in her ears. The boy leans forward in a frightened crouch; someone is doing a thing better than he ever will.
More rewarding for the non-musical are Powers's reflections on music and animals, and numerous anecdotes about composers such as Shostakovich and Messiaen, who wrote music while facing a possible death sentence, or Harry Partch, a Whitmanian figure who composed in extreme poverty.

About the two endings: one is literal, the other figurative. From the beginning, very short texts in a different font seem dropped at random into the novel. They are sometimes statements readers can identify as Peter's, sometimes quotations that can be Googled, but only near the end of the novel do readers find out the source and occasion of these texts. Although they are not a fully developed alternative to the novel's plot and backstory, the micro-passages do introduce some of the dissonance and parallax of earlier books. And they are another example of bacterial replication as they geometrically increase when picked up by and spread across social media. Powers used a similar strategy of narrational concealment in The Gold Bug Variations, where readers discover on the last page the actual producers of much of the text. The effect of this concealment in Orfeo, for me at least, is rereading the novel from a new perspective and coming to the end a second time, another example of Powers's guiding principle of repetition and variation.

Powers uses the term coda in Orfeo, and it seems to be a coda to the remarkable novels that precede it, as the last lines of "Song of Myself" are a coda, a leave-taking. In music, a coda ends a movement or piece and looks back on the composition. Another genetics-influenced novelist, John Barth, created a maximalist coda in his LETTERS, his seventh novel, which includes characters from his previous six. Powers's coda is simpler and shorter, with the thick verisimilitude of The Echo Maker and Generosity thinned out to essentials of plot and character. Though Powers is not yet sixty, the language he uses has the tension of what Edward Said called "the late style," a discord between still-passionate resistance to wisdom and a lean diction of resignation.

The ending of Orfeo may be the Orphic end of life for Peter, but we will have to wait for Powers's twelfth novel to find out if Orfeo is a farewell to his nearly constant subjects of art and science. As an indirect "Song of Myself," Orfeo does summarize the author's conflicting motivations in his novelistic career, wanting early, like Peter in his twenties and thirties, to produce unique and therefore necessarily dissonant or difficult work but also wanting, like Peter as a youth and as an older man, to produce work that many might love. Orfeo and the three novels that precede it tip toward increasing accessibilit, and at least the National Book Award judges loved The Echo Maker, and yet in Orfeo one also senses that the author has once more descended into Powers Underworld with the hope of finding a muse who would inspire him to create what may be impossible art, fiction both profound and popular.

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated periodicals. He can be reached at thomas.leclair@uc.edu.

Reviewer: Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393242683
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/13/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 55,055
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Richard Powers has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and the National Book Award.


It isn't easy to characterize Richard Powers in a single sentence. The MacArthur grant recipient and award-winning novelist suffers from what Powers himself, in a Salon interview, called "a restlessness of theme"—his books feature everything from molecular genetics and neural networks to soap manufacturers and singers. What they have in common is something Powers refers to as "the aerial view": a perspective that sees humankind as one small element in a complex universe.

As a child in Chicago's northern suburbs, and later as a teenager in Thailand, Powers had no thoughts of becoming a writer. He believed he was destined to be a scientist and explored paleontology, archaeology, and oceanography before he finally enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. But an honors literature seminar helped inspire him to change fields, and he ended up earning his M.A. in English. Powers then moved to Boston, where he found work as a technical writer and computer programmer. He embarked on an omnivorous, self-directed reading program and spent his Saturdays at the Museum of Fine Arts, where he came across a photograph titled "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914."

"The words [of the title] went right up my spine," he later told an interviewer for Cultural Logic. "I knew instantly not only that they were on their way to a different dance than they thought they were, but that I was on the way to a dance that I hadn't anticipated until then. All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the twentieth century."

The photograph also engendered Powers's career as a novelist. His first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was followed by Prisoner's Dilemma and The Gold Bug Variations, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as Time magazine's Book of the Year for 1991. Gerald Howard, writing in The Nation, called Powers "one of the few younger American writers who can stake a claim to the legacy of Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo." The Gold Bug Variations, which includes the story of a Bach-obsessed scientist who abandons his quest to crack the genetic code, established Powers as a writer who could articulate questions about science and technology—which emerge again in novels like Galatea 2.2, about a writer trying to teach literature to an artificial-intelligence program named Helen, and Plowing the Dark, which explores virtual reality and the human imagination as different means (or possibly the same means) of escaping the physical limitations of life.

Powers's works are packed with puns, parallels, and allusions; as Daniel Mendelsohn noted in The New York Times Book Review, each novel is "a kind of literary installation in which art objects, theoretical musings, plots and subplots, disquisitions on intellectual and literary history, histories of countries and corporations" illuminate an underlying theme. For some critics, Powers's brand of literary gamesmanship can be too much of a good thing: "He is quite capable of fluent sequential narrative, and readers will be relieved when he lapses into it after all the self-conscious brilliance and endlessly impressive allusion," noted a Publishers Weekly review of Operation Wandering Soul. But for his fans, part of the pleasure of a Powers novel comes from its dazzling and unexpected fusions of intellect and imagination. "It's instruct and delight, right?" Powers asked in the Salon interview. "You gotta give both."

Good To Know

Powers holds the Swanlund Chair in English at the University of Illinois, where he has taught classes in multimedia authoring and the mechanics of narrative.

On the Internet, he has been the subject of several hypertext essays, along with a hypertext vignette titled "Richard Powers Eats Peanut Butter Sandwich."

Several of Powers's novels have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, including Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, The Gold Bug Variations, and Galatea 2.2. Operation Wandering Soul was a National Book Award finalist.

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    1. Hometown:
      Urbana, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 18, 1957
    2. Place of Birth:
      Evanston, Illinois
    1. Education:
      M.A., University of Illinois, 1979

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2014

    avoid even if you have nothing else to read

    only about 20% of the book had anything to do with the review. mostly rantings about music which only a PhD would understand. Very disappointing

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  • Posted March 24, 2014

    The Creative Mind in Oceana

    Richard Powers is brilliant, and I am not. I struggle a bit with his books, but the struggle is well worth it for the insights and beauty of the work. In the book, I was drowning a bit in trying to understand the music. Once I gave up trying to completely understand that, the book flowed. I can't quite decide if it shows me our modern world as terrifying or sublime, but I come away with a different--and undoubtedly more accurate--view of it than I had before.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2014

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    Posted August 20, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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