OMG! One of my favorite books of all time is The Goldbug Variations by Richard Powers. And although I’ve read much of what he’s written since, nothing has come anywhere near the mark he set with that one – until now. No, Orfeo doesn’t match Goldbug, but it at least approaches that level.
The title is the name of the Greek god of music and instruments as well as the name and subject matter of several operas. According to Wikipedia the protagonist, Peter Els, was inspired by the life of Steve Kurtz.
The basic story opens with the 70+-year old Peter Els grieving the death of his musically inclined dog, Fidelio, and getting himself suspected of bio-terrorism by some feds. It seems Els has a biological chemistry lab has set up in his house. All this is taking place some time in 2010 and in a fictional town in Pennsylvania.
We’re then taken in sections interspersed with the main plot through Peter’s life from childhood, when he was a “gifted” or “talented” young clarinetist as well as an interested young chemist, up to present day – widowed, living alone, a hobbyist. This is a fairly common contemporary lit structure, if that were all there were to it.
But no – little paragraphs, set off by solid lines for emphasis, are inserted throughout the narrative giving texture and interest. They function like epigrams, maybe, separating the sections/chapters (there is no other separation), except they seem to have more relevance to the section just ended.
And in those sections of back story lies the history of Western music since Mahler and prior, through WWII and on into post-war US music. It’s fascinating, amazing, engrossing – Powers shows us the avant garde, the experimental, wildly creative, 20th/21st century classical music, sometimes called postmodern – the music of those who throw out the rules and either believe in the power of creative music to transform, or that it’s totally meaningless – or both.
This is a pretty heady book so I Googled a lot – musical pieces and names – Gustav Mahler (p. 28) and his music (Kindertotenlieder) (p.28), Milton Babbitt and “Who Cares If You Listen?” (p. 99), the Imp Saint, John Cage (p. 100) and music. – And there’s the incredible story of Messiaen and his fellow prisoners and their Quartet for the End of Time:(Youtube) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quatuor_pour_la_fin_du_temps
“Serratia marcescens” (a species of bacteria)
25-year old beats mother to death (p. 205) – just an odd historical tidbit
“How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” (Reich- Proverb -Wittgenstein – p. 245)
The ending is a page turner in both the past and the present and finally, of course, they join.
A huge theme running through all of this is change – thinking things can’t ever maybe, yet how they do. The reader knows this from the arrival of the cops in the first sections back to Els as a child listening to his father’s records. The contemporary scenes have lots of technology, the general narrative seems to follow the progress of that technology. Other evidence of changes through these years include the field of music (naturally – the focus change) and politics as well as in the personal life of Els, his family, friends, love life, – the world changes – what was new and fresh becomes old and stale to the new young but not, perhaps, to those getting older. Sometimes it just cycles around.
The writing is utterly delicious – from p. 54:
He took up the open book, and once again, for another night, he trained his mind to settle in and read. It took some time to build up a rhythm. The sense of concentrated elsewhere filled him with that primal pleasure: seeing through another’s eyes. But after some paragraphs, a clause swerved and slid him sideways into a drift, a soft passage several pages on, in the middle of the right-hand page , a sense-rich description of a man and woman walking down a street in Boston on a July night, reprised, in misty da capo, again and yet once more, his eyes making their closed circuit, hitting the right margin’s guardrail , looping back around and trying the line again, tracking along the circuit of text, slowing then slipping down the stripped cogway of slick subordinate clauses, retrying the sequence until his dimming sight again found traction—the man, the woman, a moment of regretful truth along the esplanade—before snagging and starting the fuzzy looping climb all over again.
http://danielgoode.com (scroll down a bit)
** Seen on a t-shirt at the beach “Music, for those who know, is the only true form of art.”