Few writers of fiction dare to describe music: Straying from one artistic medium into another carries with it a whiff of transgression and puts a novel in danger of being dubbed "hybrid" -- not to mention the fact that long descriptions are supposed to be anathema to the modern reader.
In Orfeo, U.S. National Book Award winner Richard Powers' 11th novel, music plays as important a role in the plot as its protagonist, the aging avant-garde composer Peter Els, and long passages of musical description are catalysts for some of Orfeo's most profound ideas.
Powers is no ordinary novelist, and Orfeo is no ordinary novel. Like the haunting music it describes, it is stirring and odd, elegant and melancholy, the kind of book you can't shake even if you dislike it.
Seventy years old, Els is officially retired but still making a kind of music in a new medium altogether -- microbiology. He is only midway into a groundbreaking project in genetic manipulation, conducted in his do-it-yourself home laboratory, when the FBI catches wind of his experiment.
Els' strange story is inspired by that of Steve Kurtz, a real-life bio-artist arrested by the FBI in 2004 on charges of terrorism. Like in the Kurtz case, Orfeo's "Bioterrorist Bach" is guilty of working with potentially dangerous bacteria, but he is innocent of malicious intent.
As he repeatedly insists, his materials can be found via a few mouse clicks and purchased with a credit card. In a virus- and terror-phobic era, however, this isn't enough justification for the FBI, and Els is soon on the run, driving cross-country and visiting ghosts from his past as he tries to evade the dangers of the present.
Orfeo's structure is complex: the present teases out slowly (the entire novel covers just a few days in real-time), interspersed with long passages delving into Els' memories. As he has lived a musical life, many of his memories involve music -- either that Els himself has composed, or music he's loved.
Some of these descriptions are beautiful, exhibiting Powers' own tonal range. Sometimes, the pacing of Orfeo slows to a crawl, or shifts to the tempo of the music moving it, but this always feels deliberate.
In one key passage, Els does nothing but sit in a university café listening to Steve Reich's 14-minute musical interpretation of Wittgenstein's proverb, How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life. As he listens, Els hears his own life unfolding again in the chords -- a moment of uncertainty, a wavering between keys.
"Does that D want to return to B minor, as in the beginning? Will the road lead back to E-flat minor, or leap free into a wilder place? The path bends again; E-flat in the soprano, followed immediately by a half-step lower, and he's flooded with loss, the sound of something said that can never be taken back."
Orfeo mainly strikes minor keys, but its political overtones, familiar to Powers fans -- the policing of art, the intersections of power and technology -- largely take a back seat to looming themes of love, loss and regret and, most of all, the excruciating effort involved in creating a meaningful work of art.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.