The year has just begun and Richard Power’s stunning new novel Orfeo will certainly end up on my top ten list.
Orfeo revolves around Peter Els, a musician/scientist who hears music in the world around him, whether that is a symphony or someone unwrapping a candy bar.
The novel opens with Peter’s dog dying and him calling emergency services to help revive the dog. The authorities arrive and can’t do anything but see suspicious equipment lying around the house. We find Peter is trying to insert music into a DNA sample. After he buries his dog, the authorities suddenly suspect him of being a bioterrorist because they wonder how he got the DNA samples. After he escapes, we are given a series of flashbacks that show how Peter came to be the man he is and how he got to be a man who loved music and science into the biggest threat to society.
From a troubled childhood, a girlfriend who he loves leaves him to study music abroad, to a marriage and child that he soon abandons and a successful theatrical production based on a historical fact that ends up repeating itself in a current historical event (Waco, yes, Waco.) Peter becomes his own worst enemy as he searches for what makes music, music and how to keep it as pure as possible.
Did some of the greatest music come from the world when it was at its worst, and if so with Peter having such a horrible life why can’t he create something spectacular? Powers turns the novel into a self-examination of humanity and asks us to hear the sounds around us and how, these noises could possibly create who we are.
While reading Orfeo, I would often pause and listen to what I was hearing. It truly made me appreciate every crinkle, white noise, and buzz from a computer. Was it true? Did these sounds that were my milieu making me, me? Powers as a novelist always makes you think and with this novel he takes it one step further and says to the reader, “You better wake up and hear the coffee.”