Orfeo is the latest novel by Richard Powers and is inspired by the real life account of bioartist Steve Kurtz, who was arrested by the FBI for bioterrorism and further prosecuted by t
Orfeo is the latest novel by Richard Powers and is inspired by the real life account of bioartist Steve Kurtz, who was arrested by the FBI for bioterrorism and further prosecuted by the American government whilst America was still under the climate of paranoia that followed the Patriot Act.
Although Kurtz was completely innocent of all charges brought against him, it still took him four years to clear his name following the discovery of a laboratory he’d set up to create an art exhibition about genetically modified agriculture.
Too many genres
I have pondered over this review for quite a while, just ask the Books Editor at Kettle Mag, she was probably expecting it a few weeks ago! It was difficult because, ultimately, Orfeo is a great book, but it’s not quite what you expect after reading the blurb. It attempts too many very different genres, music with science and also thriller.
Whilst it works, anyone who, like me, picks up this book expecting a thriller or a novel based around a musical journey of self discovery will be disappointed or find themselves feeling slightly lost at points because the novel does not meet all expectations.
The novel follows the story of Peter Els, aged seventy, a retired composer and a scientist who is attempting to record compositions in bacterial DNA. Like Kurtz, his laboratory is found by the authorities. Whilst he is innocent, they assume the worst.
Coming home one day he finds men in Hazmat suits in his home and his house quarantined. He goes on the run, assuming the evidence to clear him will be found and it will all blow over. Unfortunately, this doesn’t turn out to be the case.
The media storm and unfounded panic over his activities rapidly develops into national hysteria and he is labelled “Bioterrorist Bach.” Things go from bad to worse, and the government promises to bring him to trial when he is found.
From here the story splits between a biographical story of Els’ life, how his talents in maths, science and classical music lead him to the position he finds himself in, the rise and faltering of his career, as well as his relationships with his wife and daughter.
Interwoven with the biographical element is the story of the suspected bioterrorism with these two strands coming together as he reconciles with his ex wife and daughter.
Written too beautifully?
Orfeo is a beautifully written novel, but sometimes too beautifully written. The narrative, at times, is so poetic that you occasionally wonder if Powers has gotten carried away with exploring the English language and demonstrating his extensive knowledge of it. You wonder if he forgot that the point of writing a book is to tell a story, rather than write what at times comes across as a compilation of poetic terms.
There are also a lot of musical references, which is fine if you have a good knowledge of classical music, but if not, you can be left guessing what he is referring to. The flip side of that is that it does inspire you to listen to some truly beautiful classical music.
Powers’ latest is a wonderful novel and, whilst it not fitting neatly into a specific genre, it exposes the reader to something a bit different. The writing, whilst laborious at times, is a joy to read and the story, especially given the factual inspiration of it, is fascinating.
Don’t be put off by some of the complexities. Orfeo is an excellent read and most definitely deserves to be on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize this year.
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.