This is one of the best books I have read in months. I loved it: its articulate writing, its depth of feeling, its intelligence; it barrels you along in action but is so clear and pure; it is so, so sad. In ancient Greek myth Orpheus is a legendary musician, poet and prophet. He talent is such that he can charm all living things with his music; the nymphs and gods wept at his mournful playing at the death of his wife; he softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone. When he dies, it is at the hands of those who cannot hear his divine music. And so, the scene for Richard Power’s Orfeo is set.
Peter Els is a composer of obscure renown and now an old man. For him, the world is filled wonder and beauty, science and music. He was alive at the right time: a member of the avant-garde Els’ music is a part of modern history but the academic still drives toward capturing the essential melody, the endless song. Fusing his two loves together, he experiments with biohacking musical patterns into a bacterial human pathogen, writing music into DNA. Homeland Security, on high alert for bioterrorism and ignorant to his divine music, start investigating him and this book retrospectively tells the story of his Els’ life so far.
Orfeo was somewhat reluctantly recommended to me by a friend: not having the same musical education as him, he wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy it. But what matters not is hearing Mozart’s Jupiter symphony at the same time as Els, what matters is how it feels; how rapturous, how revelatory. The first time Els hears it, it is life-changing and what he needs to do with his life is perfectly crystalised. Powers distills this moment down, captures its feeling and depth and meaning so perfectly that I was enraptured. In this exact moment of reading, what matters is not how the music sounds, but how it feels. While some critics may not like it, the playing of sound and time does have meaning.
“Music isn’t about things, he says. It is things.”
“…noise is music by its maiden name.”
“How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul?”
It is a passionate book, almost a manifesto. Els is so driven throughout his life to capture something unnamable, not wanting to die wanting things he cannot even name. Born prodigiously talented in music, mathematics and science, he is pushed toward the practical before being pulled toward music, towards creating castles in the air.
“Then a summer night, a gram and a half of P. cubensis, and Els found himself swimming upright, propelled by through through a field filled with what announced itself as filaments of pure life stretching out much farther and deeper than mere world. The stars spoke in patterns of brilliance so obvious he’d forever overlooked them. The field was pure music, Jupiter unbound, one of an endless, renovating series of theres that the brain might live in, were it not shaped so mercilessly for here.”
The world is unavoidably full, brimming with science and music; through Els’ eyes it trills with bacteria and sounds. It is almost an overstimulation, seeing this way. It is overwhelming, it fills up the chest, with how much there is to see, to feel, how much capacity for exploration and expression there is. It is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.
It is so hard to write this post and do justice to the feeling in me inspired by this book. It feels so true, so right; it lights up what I know I can see in the world. It is also deeply, deeply, tragic and my heart still aches and the idea of what society can do to people like Els.
“And Peter, who’d written the songs for forever and for no one, but also to strike remorse in the heart of the woman who’d cut him loose from across the Atlantic four years earlier, now wanted only to put his ear up to the clavicle of the other, warmer woman and hear what there was inside her so worth humming about.”
Maybe that’s where the heart of feeling lies for me: Els is somebody I like – talented, deeply intelligent, kind, flawed, still driven by an unquenchable thirst to learn – and the world is set up to crush him.
Or, maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic. But I loved this book, I haven’t stopped recommending it in the months since I finished it, I still have an ache in my chest when I read these passages. The story is one that has been told since the ancient Greeks, the main character is the kind of person we need in the world – the kind who finds the colour for us, the writing is so poetic and beautiful. Read it. Tell me what you think. I hope it transports you like it did me.