In 2004, Steve Kurtz, an art professor in Buffalo, was working with live bacteria to put together a performance piece about bioterror when his wife had a heart attack and died. The 911 responders saw the petri dishes; Kurtz was arrested on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack and held for 22 days until a grand jury refused to indict him.
Richard Powers’ novel “Orfeo” takes off from a similar incident, except that the experimenter is a retired music professor turned biology hobbyist, it was his dog that died and he evades Homeland Security and takes off on a cross-country flight, the kind that you know can only end badly.
The book, though, is not so much about the current paranoia about terrorism as about the relationship of “high” art — in this case, experimental music — to the rest of society. The best part of “Orfeo” is its evocation of a character who lives for music. Even if you’re not musical, Powers conveys the power music has over someone who has a talent for it: “…half a jumbled scale. Too simple to be called invented. But the thing spills out into the world like one of those African antelopes that fall from the womb, still wet with afterbirth but already running. … Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag.” Unfortunately, the book is ultimately unable to maintain the reader’s sympathy for a man who, however talented and creative, is really a kind of jerk.
Peter Els was a music nerd from early on. Unmoved by the popular music of the 50s — at one point his older brother tied him to a chair and forced him to listen to Chuck Berry — he was faced with a clear choice in college: Pursue a career as a composer, with little chance of financial success or pursue a lucrative career as a chemist, since he finds the chemical patterns of how complex molecules combine as compellingly interesting as those of music. On the urging of his lover, a virtuoso viola player, he chooses music, only to have her dump him for an even more talented musician.
This event sets a pattern: Each time, when faced with a choice, Peter takes the path that is more isolating, generally at the urging of some significant figure in his life. His college advisor leads him into experimental music, in which it seems the goal is to abandon every tradition and alienate every audience — to be revolutionary in every way. Ironically, even with the 1960s social revolution going on at the same time, Peter manages to isolate himself from any significant audience.
Yet Peter also wants the appreciation he can only get from an audience. He becomes close friends with a performance artist, Richard Bonner, who persuades him to abandon his wife and daughter in Boston for the possibility of success in the New York performance scene. Later, Richard cynically exploits the massacre of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, to promote Peter’s opera about a similar massacre of religious believers in the Middle Ages. Peter is so ashamed of using the tragedy in this way that he stops composing, teaches the kind of music he once would have disdained and, when he finally retires, finds solace in his old interest in organic chemistry, tinkering with the DNA of bacteria, something that proves surprisingly easy for a layperson. That leads to the raid on his house by federal agents in hazmat suits.
When Peter flees, his opera, which commemorated a bloody uprising against government and church authority, is seized by journalists as evidence of his terrorist intentions. When Peter, in his flight, ends up at Richard’s home, Richard convinces Peter to use the media attention he’s getting to obtain a larger audience than he ever could have hoped for.
Powers captures the irony inherent in an art scene that disdains much of its potential audience, even as it expects its appreciation. Peters, as Powers portrays him, is not a bad person, but he’s easily seduced by the possibility of “success,” so easily seduced that he’s unable to consider the impact on his own life, much less on other people. The only element of unreality here is that the people he’s hurt the most — his ex-wife and his daughter — are still all too willing to help him, even though he’s on his way to destroy himself.
The story may be meant as an example of the fate of a truly creative artist in an age when high art is unappreciated and popular art is controlled by the bottom line. However, Peter is too narcissistic for the reader to identify much with him. It’s not just his devotion to art or his ambition that isolates him: It’s his inability to really connect or value human relationship. Even in his “revolutionary” phase, when he’s trying to make a kind of music that no one has made before, he’s completely uninterested in the political upheavals going on around him. And, ultimately, it’s his isolation, his inability to understand how anyone else perceives him, which is his downfall.