In true epic style, and with breathtaking ambition, Orfeo, opens in media res, the death of avant- garde composer Peter Els’ dog alerting neighbours to a police search of the home of the man the world has come to know as the “Bioterrorist Bach”. The musician’s response to that drawing net is to make the road trip which is this novel’s main structuring device. His journey is less about place, but about a re-visiting of people – his daughter, his wife, his muse and his best friend/alter-ego which forms his American underworld. There are shades of John Haskell’s American Purgatorio and, perhaps, Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes feeding this vast crucible.
No dates pin down the action, but the references throughout his life-journey are clear enough. Zelig-like, we know where Els was when the Berlin Wall fell; similarly, when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, and right on through to a contemporary backdrop of Twitter trolling and Grand Theft Auto mentions.
Epic in its scale, Orfeo’s narrative sweeps on without rest, undefined by chapters or conventional breaks, its structure punctuated by fragments of thought set apart from the body of the text. Arguably, that makes a challenging read, and one which is at its most arduous in parts of the book which might be considered ekphrastic – significant sections of involved and highly technical descriptions of classical music. Just as there may be a very limited audience for some of Els’ more outré work, perhaps the level of vocabulary and knowledge required to truly appreciate these pages might limit their fullness to the professional musician reader or the particularly keen enthusiast. Doubtless that is the author’s purpose, but some readers not au fait with the score might wish he had reined in his point more quickly.
That should not imply that Powers fails to use musical references to rich, gripping effect elsewhere. Far from it. Music is a constant echo, nuancing his beautifully poetic language – from that “battalion of spiccato cellos” to “the sad shanties of landlessness” – and when that musical notation is accessible to the non-specialist reader, it is stunning indeed.
Powers’ underpinning lyricism is important, for unlike classic epics, in Peter Els we have an omnipresent protagonist who is not a hero. Controlled by music and seemingly at the mercy of its tones, cadences and structures, perhaps only around the time of the birth and early life of his daughter does Els incline at all towards any form of self-determination. Even his twin study of chemistry is driven by his need to understand the patterns in the music which masters his life.
In the thrall of these sound waves, his life increasingly imitates his art, with little conscious input apparent. When “The Fowler’s Snare”, his last major performed work, is premiered, its themes and images rumble elsewhere – opening and dangerously prescient, in the darkness of Waco. Orlan-like in the inseparability of life and performance, he makes a feeble attempt to close the production, but we know that the conductor’s baton has never been held by Els. In true road-movie style, he heads for the woods and drops out.
In this seamless, unclouded narrative, every reader will understand Els’ culpability differently and yet his truth and fate, perilous from that opening burst, is never a foregone conclusion, and those final pages are among the most stunning in the whole book. Powers has been rightly lauded for Orfeo’s intelligent scope, which is itself underscored with a dry and knowing wit. For this reader, however, the controlling force of the music left a very thinned central character, and too soon, I cared too little of his fate and that of his world. Having read the book, perhaps I might have enjoyed a concert rather more.