Richard Powers’s brainy, elegantly written novels almost invariably focus on a field of science or an art form, and in some of them art and science are contrapuntal themes as the narrative advances through several decades. The Time of Our Singing (2003) offers an obvious precedent for his new book in bringing together choral music and physics; but Orfeo’s closest ancestor is The Gold Bug Variations (1991), in which orchestral music and biology, Bach and DNA are similarly interwoven.
Orfeo begins with Peter Els, avant-garde composer, eccentric retired don and enthusiastic amateur scientist, performing a biochemical experiment in his kitchen. When his music-loving dog Fidelio dies suddenly, he dottily calls the police. Noticing the home lab, the cops report him to colleagues as a suspected bioterrorist.
Els goes out and, as he returns, sees the start of a Homeland Security raid on his house. He becomes a fugitive, nicknamed the ‘Biohacker Bach’, and visits places and people that elicit memories. Punctuating what then becomes a road novel are episodes from Els’s earlier life.
The underworld this American