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Richard Powers can clearly write. In Orfeo, we find a semi-retired avant garde composer, Peter Els, filling his empty days setting up a home laboratory and cultivating bacteria. He has only his dog, Fidelio, for company. Fidelio dies and Els’s life starts to unravel.

Most specifically, the Federal Government starts to take an interest in the bacteria.

Els doesn’t trust the Government to accept the innocence of his experiments in these days of heightened sensitivity. So Els does what every rational 70 year old would do: he sets off on a literal journey across the country and a metaphorical journey through his past.

And what a dull past it is. Els had a brief romance at university; he had a wife and a daughter; and he had a friend. His friend liked his wife. His wife liked someone else. Els composed music. On his own.

Like I say, Powers can write and for a while, he created quite an intriguing storyline with the bacteria. He seems to have a delicate touch with words, managing to get the tone just right and allowing the reader to fill in a whole picture on the back of one perfect phrase.

But then comes the music. I do not know the music being described and I do not want to know it. I do not need dozens of pages telling me what Shostakovich sounds like, but at least Shostakovich music exists; at least I could get in touch with the real thing if I wanted to. But dozens of pages describing fictional music?

Describing music is a pretty pointless activity anyway. To this reader, it just looked like endless lists of adjectives; endless lists of composers; endless lists of instruments; endless lists of technical jargon. It was clearly supposed to counterpoint or emphasize situations in the here and now. On the rare occasions (towards the end) where the parallel or contrast was there to be observed, it felt obvious, clunky, heavy handed. Whenever the story had managed to recapture the attention, we drifted off into more music. Truly it was soporific.

Buried in the swathes of drivel, there are interesting (though perhaps obvious) points about government surveillance, personal freedom, paranoia, stymied dreams. At the end, though, these feel just like ingredients sprinkled in according to a recipe. The same too with Els, who manages to veer between perspicacity and gaucheness; pragmatism and naivity with abandon. Orfeo lacks humanity; it lacks credibility.

Where some novels try to do something that doesn’t work or doesn’t appeal, it is difficult to see what Richard Powers was actually trying to do here. At my most charitable, I can only imagine it was a self-indulgent exercise in seeing whether he could create music from words. His answer is that he can’t.

I resent pretty much every minute I wasted reading this novel.
 
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