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A Novel

Book - 2014
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Composer Peter Els --the "Bioterrorist Bach" -- pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey and, through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, he hatches a plan to turn his disastrous collision with Homeland Security into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them
Publisher: New York : W. W. Norton & Company, [2014]
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780393240825
Characteristics: 369 pages ; 25 cm


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Mar 21, 2019

I never thought I would assign a Richard Powers book just 2 stars; not after spectacular works like The Time of Our Singing or Galatea 2.2. I'm still unsure what Powers was trying to do here: Write an anthem (dirge?) for the death of the American Dream? Rhapsodize about a lost era of pot-fueled musical abstract expressionism? Capture some ephemeral connection between the physics of sound and the convoluted geometry/chemistry of molecular biology? Whatever it was, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his own peculiar form of genius, he failed. In the end, it's just a sad book about a man who never quite figured our who or what he was supposed to be. A book set in a country and at a time when all the old illusions, all the old fairy tales about liberty and justice and self-realization have been proven to be lies. A land that has retreated in fear of the boogeymen of its own creation, a society where everyone is possibly a terrorist.
All of Powers' vast intellect and range of knowledge could not salvage this mess. Too bad. Sic transit gloria.

May 14, 2018

Burdened with excessive detail, Orfeo drifts to a predictable, melodramatic conclusion

Peter Els is a composer of new music, an old man, a adjunct professor who has been put out to pasture. When his dog, Orfeo, his only companion, dies suddenly he's so distraught he mistakenly calls 9-1-1. He abruptly ends the call which brings the police to his home only to find he's been passing his time cooking up variant biological strains in his kitchen laboratory.

Is this crackpot a bioterrorist? When the authorities come to investigate, Els goes on the lam.

Author Richard Powers has the narrative go back and forth between Els' past and the present until they converge. Gradually a picture emerges of the a man obsessed with music, music that sounds like noise to most people.

I was never sure if Els was a genius, delusional, lazy or just stubborn, but his obsession manages to wreck every career opportunity and relationship he comes in contact with.

As a protagonist Els is not sympathetic, he's frustrating.

Powers burdens the story with extensive passages about experimental music and minute details on musical composition. It's excessive and redundant as are his passages of transcendence the composer feels when in the thrall of his muse. The plot seems to drift as if the author wasn't sure where to take it and the conclusion is as predictable as it is melodramatic.

Throughout the book the author has inserted intrusive sentences presented in a different font and separated from the text by bold lines. I had no idea what the quotes were referring to, who they were by or what part they played in the story other than pulling me out of the reading experience.

Sep 20, 2014

Powers consistently produces deeply intelligent novels of ideas - I find them humbling to read because the author knows so much and is always able to combine his knowledge with excellent writing. My favorite--and Powers' own favorite--of his is The Time of Our Singing. Here's a link to an interview I did with him in January, 2014:

Sep 18, 2014

I didn't really plan on reading this, I just happened on it in the lucky day section. I'll freely admit that Richard Powers is much smarter than I am and his use of classical music, technology, and science pretty much goes over my head. As with his earlier "Galatea 2.2," he updates a classical myth for the digital age, in this case the ever-popular Orpheus and Eurydice story. He's somewhat in the tradition of cutting edge, zeitgeist-savvy writers like Pynchon, DeLillo, and Gibson, and like them, he can be a bit cold and a bit too interested in being in the moment. There are 9/11 references, of course, as well as the Arab Spring, Oklahoma City, Lady Gaga, Bollywood movies, and contemporary classical composers that I know nothing about, Messiaen in particular. It's all very cerebral and impressive, but it doesn't work as a novel or really as a book of our times.

wbskinner Jul 25, 2014

Great book, only problem was I had to checkout all the music mentioned in the book.

Longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize


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