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  • Articles by Mary

    Orfeo by Richard Powers

    Orpheus in Greek mythology could charm all living things with music.  In Orfeo Peter Els struggles to maintain his life and loves in the real world when his soul belongs to music.  His engagement with modern life and biotechnology create a dramatic narrative which serves as a backdrop for his character and relationships.  


    But the novel is really about music, Els relationship to music and his experience of it.  Orfeo is filled with stories about the creation of music and ideas about the nature and definition of music.  An enduring theme is Els loneliness in that his experience of music is not shared or even sharable,  though Powers certainly tries.  There are long passages in which words are used to created the structure and dynamics of a musical piece, to take us along with Els, but in the end they are still words.  


    The style is detached.  Els’ life is described in the third person in a mixture of energetic story telling and throw away part sentences, recreating his lack of focus and inconsistent almost bewildered connection with life. His wife, his daughter, his mentor, his students, slip in and out over the years.  


    At one point in the novel Els begins a relaxed but rewarding relationship with a small town librarian.   All is well until she begins to ask to hear his work, and accuses him of thinking her too stupid to appreciate it.  When at last he agrees and she fails to connect with the piece, hearing only noise, their relationship is doomed.  


    The reader is in a similarly excluded position.  While the depth of Els commitment to music and the intensity of the joy it gives him is clear, there is a sadly frustrating suspicion that without the antenna of Els sensibilities, one might only hear noise.  


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