Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo is the story of Peter Els’ lifelong love of music as his means to understand the code of life beyond that of humanity into the distant past and the alien future. A clarinettist whose father wanted him to be a chemist, Peter falls in love with a cellist who argues his musical brilliance is too good to be thrown away on a life of chemistry and yet by the end of his life, retired and isolated Peter returns to the chemical building blocks of life and tries, instead of teasing music from life, to put music into DNA. Unsurprisingly, his homemade biochemistry alerts the authorities. They see the manipulation of bacteria as a possible terrorist threat. His reaction is to flea, hoping for some final recompense for a life lived without considering the full consequences.

There is so much of this novel that I wanted to love. I enjoy descriptions of music, I embrace the need to find something that coheres for one moment an endless bafflement at life. And yet. And yet there was something eerie about this book as if, like a melody too often played, I had heard it before, its echo an earworm that niggled at me and forced me to read at lightening speed partly through frustration – what was this sound I had heard before? – but also a little through boredom – when would it end? That was what triggered my epiphany. The reason this book couldn’t leap from the Man Booker long list to the short list was that the story of the American male life-crisis has started to tire even those invested with the power of awards. I think this is what the Great American Novel has become: a man in later years on one last pilgrimage – one that he sees will undoubtedly fail – to apologise for his selfishness, his absence, his inability to do the daily work of living with others; the account of a deeply flawed man whom we are nonetheless meant to pity because he meant well. Well I’ve read it and burned the t-shirt.

I’m not saying that this isn’t a well-written and interesting novel. I’m not saying I don’t embrace many of the themes and understand an aging attitude to the reasons for, and efforts of, creativity, but I just wish the novel had stepped beyond a vision of itself as an addition to a genre that needs to get over itself. I also wonder if the title was too easily arrived at and not fought for. Yes, there are those who say Orfeo, or Orpheus, brought medicine to men, so Peter’s scientific tinkering has a mythical mirror, but what about the descent into hell or the love of young boys or his inability not to look back (Peter does do a lot of looking back but I think he gains rather than loses from the experience)? I wonder if I’ve missed some parallels.

Having said that, I’m sure a more musical individual would find much more in Orfeo and would embrace Peter as the tragic hero Richard Powers no doubt intends him to be. Of course, in many ways, his fall also hints at a wider tragedy being played out by America itself and that is interesting, but I wish this were a fresh take, a view from a different perspective, not the same old whinings of a man regretting single-mindedness but the song as it may be taken on by the next generation. That would be a new breed of Great American novel.

Next week I’m reading Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.

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