The National Book Awardwinning author of The Echo Maker delivers his most emotionally charged novel to date, inspired by the myth of Orpheus.
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).
An overture, then:
Lights blaze from an American Craftsman home in a demure neighborhood, late on a spring evening, in the tenth year of the altered world. Shadows dance against the curtains: a man working late, as he has every night that winter, in front of shelves filled with glassware. He's clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves, and his Giacometti body hunches forward as if in prayer. A gray but still-thick Beatles mop hangs in his eyes.
He studies a book on the gear-cluttered workbench. In one handa single-channel pipette, raked like a dagger. From a tiny refrigerated vial, he sucks up no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm. This pellet goes into a tube no bigger than a mouse's muzzle, a dollop so small he can't be sure it's really there. His gloved hands shake as he shoots the used pipette tip into the trash.
More liquids go from the beakers into the dollhouse cocktail: oligo ...
“Life turned out to be one shot, stray and mistaken, a single burst scattered on the air,” Peter Els reflects in Orfeo. Even just that one line captures wave upon wave of heartache, loneliness, and profound regret. It delivers a sense of immediacy and empathy that only truly great fiction can. 2014 might just be getting started but I already know which book will be on my list of favorites this year.
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).
Full Review (912 words).
In Orfeo, the protagonist Peter Els sees many similarities between gene structures and music. "Genomics was right now learning how to read scores indescribably beautiful," Powers writes. And while the book talks about an entire segment of study that is called "biocomposing" with its own dedicated journal and conference, research reveals the projects to be still scattered and not quite corralled into a sturdy discipline.
Since the essence of music can be boiled down to a series of notes, it makes sense that most patterns observed in the universe could be "set" to music. Here are some examples of music derived from science:
If you liked Orfeo, try these:
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A novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama, and in its seamless fusion of the epic and the intimate, it achieves a truly singular beauty that deserves to be compared to the classic Chinese novels that inspired it.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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