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The Book We're Talking About: Richard Powers's 'Orfeo'

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RICHARD POWERS ORFEO
W. W. Norton & Company
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Orfeo by Richard Powers
W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95
Published January 20, 2014

What is it about?

Peter Els is about as law-abiding as they come, but a certain crew of government agents seems to think otherwise. He's devoted his life to creating abstract, destructive musical compositions à la John Cage, only to see the trend fall out of style. He shifts his focus, then, to a separate but related interest: a genetic engineering project aimed at finding musical patterns in DNA strands. When his potentially threatening project is discovered, he goes on the run, revisiting his past and earning the nickname "Bioterrorist Bach."

Why are we talking about it?

Though Powers's work is sometimes described as too cerebral, and therefore a little cold, we think the topics he chooses to write about are fascinating and timely, without fail. There are few literary writers covering the art-meets-science realm, and who better than Powers, with his unique technical knowledge, to do so?

Who wrote it?

Richard Powers is the author of 11 novels. His 2003 book, The Time of Our Singing, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his 2006 novel, The Echo Maker, was a National Book Award winner. Powers is also a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, and a winner of the Pushcart Prize. He has demonstrated an interest in physics, and has worked as a computer programmer.

Who will read it?

Anyone interested in the intersection of art and science, or art and technology. Also, those interested in, or horrified by, recent news surrounding government surveillance.

What do the reviewers say?

The New York Times: "These characters are not free of the flaws Powers is often taxed with. They can be clunkily sentimental; they descend to cliché (“We had energy. We had ideas”); their motives are sometimes conventional, sometimes obscure. Nor is the patented lyricism of Powers’s writing always effective."

Los Angeles Times: "It is his portrayal of Els' inner life that gives "Orfeo" its heft. This has not always been his strong suit; his characters are sometimes little more than vehicles for his ideas. Els, however, is fully realized: an artist consumed, at times tormented, by possibility."

Salon: "Peter is an ideal character for Powers because his intoxication with ideas, understanding, the correspondences between seemingly disparate realms of thought and the way such forces come together in a gyre to shape a personality, matches the author’s own devouring, yet faintly melancholy enthusiasm."

Opening lines:

"An overture, then:
Lights blaze from an American Craftsman home in a demure neighborhood, late on a spring evening, in the tenth year of the altered world. Shadows dance against the curtains: a man working late, as he has every night that winter, in front of shelves filled with glassware."

Notable passage:

"That was the story Els told his eleventh-hour pupils, from memory, with his notes sealed up in a Ziploc bag on their way to a government crime lab in Philly. He heard himself talk, weirdly calm despite the morning, like one of those cool criminals who duck into matinees five minutes after the murder, drawn in by the promise of air-conditioning and popcorn."

Around the Web

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Excerpt from 'Orfeo'