Friday, April 18, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers


I am not generally a reader of best-selling fiction, but I devoured Orfeo and savored every bit. It is a novel about music: the protagonist is a composer of avant-garde music who came of age in the 1960s. The novel is set in places I know very well (including Urbana, Illinois and Brookline, Massachusetts), and Powers describes them succinctly and accurately; even the small places and fleeting moments (including stops en route from Urbana, Illinois to St. Louis along I-70). He also describes places he hasn't been with great artistry, like the camp where Messiaen wrote and performed the Quartet for the End of Time and the first performance of HPSCHD at the Assembly Hall on the U of I campus on May 16, 1969.

Powers and I are contemporaries, and though his protagonist (in current time) is a decade and a half older than we are, he is able to vividly and realistically capture a sense of the cultural and technological "now" in contrast with the progressive "then" of the 1960s. He is able to switch between decades deftly and seamlessly. The reader instantly knows where and when time changes before the transitional sentence is finished. It's kind of like a tempo change or key change in a piece of music.

Powers has a deep understanding of music, and a deep understanding of musicians. Better than Thomas Mann, perhaps. And he uses a device for dialogue that I have never seen before (and didn't really notice until I was about halfway through the book). Dialogue is printed in italics, and the speaker is never identified. He writes so clearly that speaker doesn't need to be identified.

I bought an electronic copy which I read on the flight to our daughter's wedding in Los Angeles. One of the first things I did in town was go to a bookstore and buy a hard copy to give to my (musician/scientist) father. I'm excited to discuss it with him.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon, and here's an interview with the writer (which is how I learned about the book).

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