Tag Archives: Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ Orfeo

Richard Powers, Orfeo (Atlantic Books 2014)


Margaret Atwood, no less, is quoted on the cover of this book as saying, ‘If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century he’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big.’ That’s probably taken out of context, and it’s a wee bit over the top, but, you know, only a wee bit. If Melville had been writing about the music scene rather than the whaling industry, he might have written this book. The digressions are just about as long as the ones in Moby-Dick, and for my money at least as interesting; the quest at the centre of the story is as doomed and self-destructive; the frame of reference as global.

Peter Els, a 70 year old composer who has had very little popular or critical success, calls 911 when his dog dies. The police who come to his door have their security-threat detectors set off when they see that he is a DIY biochemist, and soon he is on the run with the full might of Homeland Security behind him. The story of his flight, which becomes a kind of Thelma-and-Louise flavoured 12-steps amends-making pilgrimage, is told in counterpoint with his back story. Folded into one story is the world of Homeland Security vigilance about real and imagined terrorist threats, media panics and the surveillance state; and into the other the history of 20th century US cutting-edge music in its broader world political context.

It’s a gauge of how well Powers writes that just as Els’s flight is reaching a critical moment, he stops off to give a lecture in an old people’s residence, and everything stops while we are told the story of the composition and first performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – and it’s so interesting that 17 pages later, when we return to the main narrative (‘That was the story Els told his eleventh-hour pupils … ) we do so as if waking up from a vivid, satisfying dream. There are other, shorter digressions, in which Els listens to a piece of music, and we are taken through it moment by moment: this is a book to be read, not just with Google on hand to chase up interesting references, but with access to a music library to listen along with Els to Mahler, George Rochberg, John Cage, Harry Partch, and on and on. And yet it has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

I scored (no pun) Orfeo at my book-swappng club. Since I’d had Powers’ Galatea 2.2 on my TBR pile for some years, I decided to read it first. If the creative and life crises depicted in the earlier book when author and character, both called Richard Powers and in their mid 30s, were based in reality, it seems that they passed. Six novels and 19 years later, I don’t know that Orfeo is any more cheerful than Galatea 2.2 but if Galatea 2.2 contemplated the abyss, then Orfeo is gloriously, operatically, romantically over the cliff.

Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (©1995, Harper Perennial 1996)

0060976926The narrator of Galatea 2.2 is a 35 year old ‘humanist in residence’ at a massive, cutting-edge scientific research centre somewhere in the USA. Recently returned from years in The Netherlands, he is still hurting from the end of his first great love relationship. When an odd, misanthropic scientist invites him to collaborate in a project to develop an artificial entity capable of producing literary commentary that will pass for human, he accepts the challenge. They are doing it for a bet, and start out thinking of it as an elaborate scam. The novel’s reference to the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his statue Galatea, which then came to life, sets up clear enough expectations.

A complicating factor is that the narrator’s name is Richard Powers, and as he tells the story of his past in a second, retrospective narrative strand, a good bit of that story (Powers’ previous four novels, the places he lived, a passing mention of time spent in south-east Asia as a child) is verifiably the same as that of the author Richard Powers. This narrative tells of Richard’s falling in love and the gradual deterioration of the relationship even as his career as a novelist flourishes: the love story may or not be drawn from life.

It’s a teasing mixture of memoir and speculative fiction. Add to the mix extended accounts of cognitive science and artificial intelligence debates, and a sometimes overwhelmingly dense play of literary allusion (Powers is educating the machine in the great canon of literature in English, and he and some of the other human characters can quote great slabs from that canon from memory), and you’ve got a very rich mix. Here’s a relatively straightforward literary bit when the machine, now called Helen, is well advanced in its/her ‘education’:

She wanted to know whether a person could die by spontaneous combustion. The odds against a letter slipped under the door slipping under the carpet as well. Ishmael’s real name. Who this ‘Reader’ was and why he rated knowing who married whom. Whether single men with fortunes really needed wives. what home would be without Plumtree’s Potted Meats. How long would it take to compile a key to all mythologies. What the son of a fish looked like. Where Uncle Toby was wounded. Why anyone wanted to imagine unquiet slumbers for sleepers in quiet earth. Whether Conrad was a racist. Why Huck Finn was taken out of libraries. Which end of an egg to break. Why people read. Why they stopped reading. What it meant to be ‘only a novel’. What use half a locket was to anyone. Why it would be a mistake not to live all you can.

I get quite a few of those references, and I expect you do too. It’s a Trivial Pursuit kind of  fun. You can imagine someone reading the novel with one hand and holding a googling machine in the other.

The scientific palaver offers a different kind of pleasure:

It struck me. Every neuron formed a middle term in a continuous, elaborate, brain-wide pun. With a rash of dendrite inputs and handfuls of axon cuts, each cell served as enharmonic point in countless constellations, shifting configurations of light, each circuit standing in for some new sense. To fire or not meant different things, depending on how the registers aligned at a given instant and which other alignments read the standing sum. Each node was an entire computer, a comprehensive comparison. And the way they fit together was a cupola itself.
Those weird parallaxes of framing must be why the mind opened out on meaning at all.

I leave it to cognitive scientist readers to decided whether this is Doctor Who-ish ‘timey-wimey stuff’ or something more substantial. Either way, it – and many passages like it – serves to impress on us how complicated the science is. And, though the going becomes tough at times for readers like me who don’t like to skip the technical paragraphs, a believable narrative emerges of a machine capable of increasingly complex responses.

The love story isn’t completely convincing, and some minor characters tend to fall just short of being prompts for reflection on the nature of intelligence: one character has a wife with advanced dementia, another has a son with Down syndrome, and a postgrad literature student for whom Richard conceives an infatuation is conveniently imbued with Theory. Oddly enough, the parts of the book that I found most convincing were the descriptions of life in a Dutch village, in which the author’s love of the Netherlands is almost palpable, and the narrator’s ups and downs as he learns Dutch ring completely, joyously true.