Orfeo by Richard Powers
Firstly, before we begin, I urge you to find and watch Synecdoche, New York, a 2008 film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (also of The Big Lebowski), written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and rather amusingly mis-labelled by iTunes as a comedy. Mind-blowing.
Secondly, here come the superlatives. Richard Powers' Orfeo is the best book I've read this year by a significant margin. Similarly mind-blowing, I'm indebted to whomever it was suggested I splash out 99p on the Kindle version , and who has both gifted me great joy and also robbed me of the delight of reading this in hard copy. The story, to trivialise it with a clumsy synopsis, follows avant-garde composer Peter Els, ostensible Orpheus referred to in the title, whose life's works moulder and decay unplayed and overlooked, while he searches for something beautiful and beyond his grasp. He is also on the run from the police, the FBI, the FDA, and NSA for acts of bioterrorism.
Punctuated throughout by what sound like short passages from a confession of sorts, and which are explained very late on in the novel, Els' life is charted from youth through to dotage by an omniscient narrator, only switching to a sort-of second person view in his final moments. His messy love life, his family - traded for the pursuit of music - his compositions and collaborations are traced over the map of world events, global disasters, wars, assassinations, deaths, political upheaval and social change. In a linear recap, his early life flirtation with composition in chemistry as an alternative to pencils and blank staves leads to a later life fascination with biochemistry and his creation of a microbial menace, by accident. However, the narrative unfolds alternating between present and past events. Only the power of Powers' storytelling leaves the final twist, unseen by me as I was swept along, a very enjoyable surprise. Through it all is a constant soundtrack, music in every passage, on every page. Descriptions of pieces, dribbles of the lives of composers, including some so moving that I spent a lot more than the seven pounds I would have spent on a paperback on downloads of things like Olivier Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, abound, sometimes dissonantly, perhaps deliberately so, but always apposite, and Powers' apparent depth of understanding translates into a love that shines through, even when criticising movements, pieces, critiques, composers. It's an infectious, cacophonous novel; a deeply moving novel covering friendship and love, music and technology, fathers and daughters, government and the media, art and consumerism. Els is a deeply flawed, wonderfully human character, empathetic and identifiable. And the title hints at poetry, prophecy, deep love and the power to make the world move, referencing Pindar's 'Father of Songs' and the anonymous Middle English poem Sir Orfeo.
Powers is a novelist to whom I will be returning again and again on the strength of this one. He left me sitting still, awaiting the music that would find me.