Reviews for Orfeo

Booklist Reviews 2013 October #2
*Starred Review* Retired composer Peter Els has an unusual hobby, do-it-yourself genetic engineering. Is his work dangerous? We're not sure, but when hazmat-suited government agents descend on his home, he flees, becoming perhaps the world's least likely suspected terrorist, the "biohacker Bach." On his prolonged cross-country journey, we learn Els' life story in flashback: how he fell in love with music and with a woman, went to school at the height of the avant garde, and began a lifelong struggle between the urge to invent and the need to please. World events, from JFK's assassination to 9/11 to H5N1, provide a kind of tragic meter. Els' leap from music to genetics seems forced at first, but Powers (a National Book Award winner for The Echo Maker, 2006) plays the long game, sure-handedly building a rich metaphor in which composition is an analog for other kinds of human invention, with all the beauty and terror that implies. Like his protagonist, he makes art that challenges rather than reassures his audience. Powers has a way of rendering the world that makes it seem familiar and alien, friendly and frightening. He is sometimes criticized as too cerebral, but when the story's strands knit fully together in the final act, the effect is heartbreaking and beautiful. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 October #2
The earmarks of the renowned novelist's work are here--the impressive intellect, the patterns connecting music and science and so much else, the classical grounding of the narrative--but rarely have his novels been so tightly focused and emotionally compelling. With his "genius" certified by a MacArthur grant, Powers (Generosity, 2009, etc.) has a tendency to intimidate some readers with novels overstuffed with ideas that tend to unfold like multilayered puzzles. His new one (and first for a new publisher) might be a good place for newcomers to begin while rewarding the allegiance of his faithful readership. His Orpheus of the updated Greek myth (which the novel only loosely follows) is a postmodern composer who lost his family to his musical quest; his teaching position to his age and the economy; and his early aspirations to study chemistry to the love of a musical woman who left him. At the start of the novel, he is pursuing his recent hobby in his home lab as "a do-it-yourself genetic engineer," hoping for "only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future." Otherwise, his motives remain a mystery to the reader and to the novel's other characters, particularly after discovery of his DNA experiments (following the death of his faithful dog and musical companion, Fidelio) sends him on the lam as a suspected bioterrorist and turns his story viral. While rooted in Greek mythology, this is a very contemporary story of cybertechnology, fear run rampant, political repression of art and the essence of music (its progression, its timelessness). "How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul?" asks protagonist Peter Els, surely one of the most soulful characters that the novelist has ever conjured. Els looks back over his life for much of the narrative, showing how his values, priorities, quests and misjudgments have (inevitably?) put him into the predicament where he finds itself. By the author's standards, this is taut, trim storytelling, though it characteristically makes all sorts of connections and proceeds on a number of different levels. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 August #1

Once again, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Powers combines an elegant appreciation of music with the examination of crucial social issues. When composer Peter Els's home microbiology lab sets off alarms at Homeland Security--never mind that he's using it only to find music in unexpected places--Els goes on the run. Dubbed the Bach bioterrorist on the Internet, he fights back, plotting to turn his head-on collision with state security into a work of art that will make people listen to the sounds around them. With a six-city tour.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 November #2

Peter Els is an eccentric, musically gifted genius who inadvertently becomes the target of government security forces and is forced to hit the road and hide. The novel maintains two tracks. The first traces Peter's past, from his early discovery of his innate intellectual gifts through his educational career and life as a composer of unique and largely unappreciated music. In his past life, Peter married a fellow artist, and they moved to the Boston area, had a daughter, and were happy, but the pressures of family life clashed with his inner artist, and the marriage broke up. The second track finds the 70-year-old Peter in the present, living a reclusive life in a small Pennsylvania college town, when a misunderstanding leads the police to his door. Peter has been experimenting with DNA alteration and disease-spreading bacteria in relation to music, which is what has the feds on full alert. VERDICT This latest from National Book Award winner Powers (The Echo Maker) is concerned with advanced scientific technologies and musical theory that allow the author to riff on arcane vocabularies, but the stories of the Elses and their friends provide another, more human dimension to this very well-written and philosophical work. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]--James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 October #1

Seventy-year-old Peter Els, a divorced and retired adjunct professor living in suburban Pennsylvania, is the latest protagonist from Powers (who won the National Book Award for The Echo Maker). When Els's dog has a heart attack, police respond to his 911 call and stumble into a room converted into an amateur biochemical engineering lab. While Els doesn't have malicious intent--this is just the final phase of a life spent enthralled with creation, first musical, now chemical--the Feds are suspicious. Rapidly, Els becomes a fugitive from the law and a presumed domestic bioterrorist. As he flees west, he visits the people who have shaped his life, but are now estranged from him--his ex-wife, his ever-eccentric creative partner, his anxious daughter. The backstory of Els's life, from childhood to the present, is woven expertly through his escape narrative. The shy, clarinet-toting boy is as believable as the young man in love, the awestruck father, and the out-of-touch husband. But the scenes at the University of Illinois in the 1960s--where John Cage stages epic musical performance pieces and Els, inspired, creates his own-- are the most vivid. Powers's talent for translating avant-garde music into engrossing vignettes on the page is inexhaustible. Els's obsession with avant-garde music, which isolates him from everyone he loves, becomes the very thing that aligns him with the reader. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Jan.)

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