In his new novel, Orfeo (Norton, Jan.), Richard Powers tells the story of Peter Els, whose curiosity, combined with his hobbies, upends his life and sends him on the run from authorities in the wake of 9/11. Els, a 70-year-old adjunct professor of music composition, has devoted his life to the intersection of music and performance. But he also has a deep scientific bent; his hobby, as he nears retirement, is biochemistry: “To Els, music and chemistry were each other’s long lost twins: mixtures and modulations, spectral harmonies and harmonic spectroscopy.... The formulas of physical chemistry struck him like the most intimate and divine composition.”
That passage is classic Powers, and in a sense, articulates the Powers worldview; he believes that art and science are better commingled than juxtaposed. They are part of the same impulse: creative, explanatory, exploratory.
As Powers made clear during a recent conversation at Stanford University, where he is now the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing, he doesn’t see art and science as opposing forces in the war of “two cultures,” to cite C.P. Snow’s famous dictum from 1959. “I’m just lucky in being shaped to feel the drama and narrative in the scientific approach to the world. Mathematics and genetics and information theory seem to be domains of great passion and anxiety, filled with all kinds of hope and joy, which is the basic stuff of all human stories.”
Mathematics and genetics and information theory are all present in Orfeo, but it’s hardly the first time that Powers has effectively used science as a major component of a novel. In 1991’s The Gold Bug Variations, he explored genetics and computer science. Artificial intelligence and neural networks form a backdrop for Galatea 2.2, his 1995 novel about the nature of consciousness. The Time of Our Singing, (2003) showcased an easy familiarity with physics, while Powers’s 2006 National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker, employed the language and science of neurology to tell the story of a young man suffering from a brain injury.
In fact, it’s difficult to think of a contemporary novelist as well versed in science as Powers—and it’s difficult to think of a novelist as gifted at rendering the poetry of science, and the wonder of the scientific imagination, within a fictional structure.
In Orfeo, Els has a fervent musical imagination and a facility for composition, but artistic success eludes him; he doesn’t find or build an audience for the kind of arcane, difficult works that characterized the musical avant-garde in the 1960s, such as Milton Babbitt and John Cage. His quest for artistic immortality also takes a very personal toll: the dissolution of his marriage and estrangement from his much-loved daughter.
Els eventually eases into a constrained, hermetic existence in New Hampshire, cut off from musical world he cherished—cut off, in fact, from most of the world. But eventually he is coaxed back into music when he takes a teaching job at a college in rural Pennsylvania. He also embarks on a new hobby—genetic engineering—which ultimately arouses the suspicions of local authorities, and then federal ones, in the Patriot Act world following 9/11.
Overnight, Els becomes famous—or rather, infamous—and goes on the road to elude capture, which induces in him a flood of memories of post–World War II America, and, in affecting detail, of modern music.
Powers says that the genesis of Orfeo was the real-life arrest of Steve Kurtz, a performance artist at SUNY Buffalo, in 2004. Kurtz had some hazardous materials in his house and was (falsely) accused of bioterrorism. Orfeo has much to say about the climate of fear engendered by the Patriot Act, but the focus of the book is on creativity, experimentation, and the quest to leave one’s mark on the world. “Els begins life in pursuit of artistic immortality, but his only fame comes the instant he is suspected of being a terrorist,” says Powers. “Orfeo is the story of his last hurrah.”
Powers convincing shows why Els is drawn to genetic engineering, which the composer sees as a more complex form of “composition”: “Four billion years of chance had written a score of inconceivable intricacy in every living cell.... A person could work in such a medium—wild forms and fresh sonorities. Tunes forever, for no one.”
Powers seduces the reader into wanting to know more about the topics that Els pursues, from biochemistry and bacteria to the history of music in the 20th century. In Els’s last class before he goes on the run, he discusses French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which was first performed in a German POW camp in 1941.
Ultimately, the story Powers tells is a profoundly human one. Els’s quest resonates thanks to Powers’s talent to make the most rarefied of activities, from the composition of avant-garde music to the research on fundamental questions about the universe itself, into engaging fiction. “My entire career has been [focused on] wrestling with questions of accessibility,” Powers says. “The challenge is to communicate the passion people have, to build a palpable excitement in their work, to make it feel like a matter of life and death—like it was for Peter Els.”
“Early on, I wanted to create a literature that extended the novel into scientific disciplines and ways of thinking about the world that are ordinarily left to nonfiction,” he says. “There’s grandeur and a beauty in this human urge to discover who we are and what we have done with this place. Every now and then, with luck, I come across stories capable of reviving that great curiosity for the extrahuman world that we all felt when we were younger—stories that make life beyond and inside us seem both familiar again and wonderfully strange.”
Powers is looking at the natural world for his next book: “Trees! I’ve become totally obsessed, and I’m amazed at how little I’ve noticed them before. Now, they seem to me to be at the heart of the human story.”