Richard Powers' latest novel, Orfeo, draws (not surprisingly) on the myth of Orpheus, a prophet and poet known for his divine music. The narrator of Orfeo is Peter Els, a lifelong composer who has not necessarily enjoyed Orpheus' success, but nevertheless has built his life around music and composition, mostly of an arty, atonal variety that doesn't guarantee wide acclaim. But the lure of music is so much a part of his life that he is willing to sacrifice his marriage and nearly lose contact with his daughter to keep his creative work going.
Peter's story is told from various points in his life, all circling around his late years, when his interest in chemistry draws him to begin experimenting with bacteria in his home, looking for hidden music--to the abrupt interest of the federal government. When they raid his home, he flees, going on a fear-fueled road trip while reflecting on the events of his life that have brought him here.
Powers is an incredible writer. There were places I found myself stopping to re-read, because the power of what he wrote was so strong. Els reflects on the work of Mahler, particularly the Kindertotenlieder, which is set to the poems of Freidrich Ruckert. There's a breathtaking set piece on Olivier Messiaen and his Quartet for the End of Time, composed and performed in a Polish Stalag during WWII. The power of music, especially during crisis and tragedy, is deeply felt here.
However,if you're a musical layperson (like me), there are times when the technical descriptions of Els' creative process and compositions become mind-numbing. It also leads to the question: what am I missing? Reading reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I've come across others who have the same complaint, and I've also seen readers who understand the musical spots but feel they're too much for the average reader. Apparently two of the main characters of this novel are based on real people, but if you don't know that part of the musical art world, you won't find that out here.
So maybe it's not written for me. That's OK too. The parts I could understand, I loved--but when I went to rate it on Goodreads, I gave it only a 3, for two reasons: the obscure musical sections that went on too long, and--one of my biggest pet peeves--lack of quotation marks. I really, really don't get why an author would do that. Worse, not only is there no quotation marks, the dialogue is all in italics. It looks abrupt and annoying on the page.
But. If you want to read some fine writing, meet some fabulously interesting characters (Els' contemporary Richard Bonner is worth the price of the book), and are willing to forge your way through detailed music descriptions, give this one a try.