Most of us will know the story. On their wedding day, a musician loses his bride to a freak accident. To win his wife back from death, the bereaved husband travels to the underworld, where his heavenly music charms not only the three-headed guard dog at the gates, but even the king and queen of hell themselves. The rulers of the underworld permit the musician to lead his dead wife up to the world of the living, but on the single condition that he must never look back at her during the ascent. He looks back.
The classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has inspired uncounted adaptations and retellings in both literature and music, including everything from the earliest recognized operas to the latest Arcade Fire album. Music still can't get enough of Orpheus, and Richard Powers's new novel draws its inspiration and emotional power more from the history of Western music than the tale of Orpheus itself. Orfeo is far from a straight retelling of the myth in a new setting, although several authors of speculative fiction have found the story suitable for more direct adaptation, transforming the ancient narrative into, for example, the mythic fantasy of Robert Silverberg's The Last Song of Orpheus (2010). Of these adaptations, I particularly recommend Anaïs Mitchell's concept album Hadestown, a recent translation of Orpheus and Eurydice in the medium of science fiction music, advertised as "a folk opera based on the Orpheus myth and set in a post-apocalyptic American depression era."
Although the plot of Powers's Orfeo may not map neatly onto the myth, the novel's protagonist is still a tormented musician who embarks on an expected journey in search of lost love, or, more properly, in search of lost time. When the novel begins, elderly composer Peter Els has laid the foundations for an unconventional project composing music through DIY genetic engineering: Peter works to splice music encoded in DNA into new bacterial cells. Due to a bizarre chain of events, Homeland Security takes notice of Peter's kitchen experiments with Serratia marcescens, a bacterium that can act as a human pathogen under some circumstances. Peter flees his home before he can be arrested or otherwise detained as a suspected bioterrorist, and the novel contains parallel narratives charting his flight across the country as well as a journey back through his own past in memory. When Peter decides to use his remaining time on the run from the government as a way of coming to terms with that past, the narrative set in the present begins to recall Bill Murray's odyssey in Broken Flowers (2005), another story of a man taking a pilgrimage through his past by visiting former lovers in succession. Peter's own encounters—with his ex-wife, his estranged best friend, and his daughter—turn out to be more productive on the whole, such that he is finally able to "face the music" with a new confidence in his own art and the life he has dedicated to it. Readers expecting a biotech thriller may be disappointed with the modest role that biohacking ultimately plays in the novel, but Orfeo challenges us to see that lurking behind the high-octane premise of every technological thriller is a life.
The patchwork of stories from Peter's past forms a kind of Künstlerroman, a portrait of the artist as a young man—but then also as a less young man, and then as a middle-aged man, until we catch back up with an old man bent over his musical petri dishes in the present. We see Peter's early infatuation with classical music lead to aspirations as a Neo-Romanticist composer and then to a rocky career as an avant-gardist prone to cribbing epigrams from John Cage in tight conversational spots. While Peter flees the American security state in the present, we revisit all the peaks and valleys of his life and music. A peak: he and his first love, Clara, begin to form their erotic bond while listening to Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, not a typical selection for first-date music but one that draws them together seemingly irrevocably (the title translates as "Songs on the Death of Children"). A valley: their transatlantic breakup. After Clara, Peter continues to write experimental music (for her, for her), but few people hear it, with the exception of a hit opera that became popular because of its uncanny resonance with a sensational news story of the time. We witness Peter becoming many different kinds of artist over the course of the novel, but his goal remains the same. Whether setting a passage from Whitman's Song of Myself to music or pulling a Burroughs on Borges, cutting up fragments of the short stories to intercalate in bolder avant-garde compositions, Peter is always striving for "the restoration of everything lost and the final defeat of time" (p. 210). This may seem like a tall order for a piece of music, but Powers's gift for translating the beauty of music into descriptive language can almost persuade you of its possibility. In short, Peter may make a cross-country trip through his own past rather than a proper descensus Averni like Orpheus, but both of them are pitting their music against death nevertheless. Yet the backward-looking narrative of Orfeo openly defies the fairytale injunction that Hades famously imposes on Orpheus: "Don't look back." Powers invites us to consider whether Peter is right or wrong to violate the taboo of looking back through his past, and whether his reveries will result in a net balance of joy or pain. Can Peter defeat time with the power of memory, or is he enslaving himself to it?
It is no coincidence that Peter's search for the music that will transcend time resembles the desire that drives much science fiction: "Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future" (p. 2). Even so, and despite its emphasis on pushing the boundaries of biohacking in the production of artistic compositions, Orfeo is not near-future science fiction. While the opening sentence slyly affiliates the novel with the post-apocalyptic genre, setting the scene "in the tenth year of the altered world" (p. 1), we later learn that the "alteration" in question must be traceable to the events of September 11, 2001, and the long shadow cast by the American security state since. Of course, Powers has always troubled the boundaries between genre SF and mainstream literary fiction, and we might do worse than to classify the novel as near-past science fiction. It's not so much that the future is now, Powers seems to be saying: the future was yesterday, and we barely noticed. Like many of the incidents and events referred to in the novel, Powers's apparently futuristic premise was itself ripped from the headlines: the inspiration came directly from the 2004 arrest of artist Steve Kurtz, who had kept bacterial cultures and DIY biological equipment in his home for the purpose of creating installation art, on suspicions of bioterrorism. The novel's main action is set just a few years later than the Kurtz arrest, on and around the precise date that Rebecca Black's music video "Friday" went viral on YouTube, the same day as the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Neither of these events plays any role in the narrative after Peter learns about them on the Internet, but the many ironies of their conjunction and subsequent representation in the media ripple throughout the novel. What seems like an incidental detail, never to be mentioned again, begins to signify more and more as the novel continues, complicating and calling attention to other recurrent themes: trauma, virality, the banality of media versus the rawness of experience, and, of course, the search for deep connections and patterns among what seem incidental or chance details. For Peter, an ex-chemistry major, both music and the physical sciences allow us to discern such patterns and truly hear the music of the spheres: "The pattern language of atoms and orbitals made sense in a way that little else but music did" (pp. 30-31). Whatever generic label we bestow on the novel, Orfeo insists that science and art are forever linked as approaches to understanding the universe and the universe of experience.
If our Orpheus is an avant-garde composer and amateur scientist listening for the music of the spheres, we must ask who plays the role of his Eurydice. Powers provides several candidates from which we might choose. For example, when Peter's wife Maddy grows exasperated with her unemployed husband's still-fruitless pursuit of avant-garde music, Peter decides that her newly "mundane" priorities damn her irretrievably: "The provable world holds her hostage, and she can't cross back over to him" (p. 201). But is Maddy really lost in a kind of worldly hell, or have Peter's misguided passions doomed him to a Stygian gloom separated from his wife and daughter? When, in his forties, chance reunites Peter with Clara—"chance was an order no one could yet see" (p. 234)—we wonder if we have finally reached the scene in the novel intended to represent the rescue of Eurydice. Clara seems to think so: "Peter! I'm so happy. I feel . . . retrieved" (p. 238). Alternatively, perhaps Peter does not descend to the underworld to commence any rescue until his flight from Homeland Security, but again several candidates for Eurydice present themselves. Peter visits both Maddy and his adult daughter in hopes of some kind of redemption or retrieval, but even his apology for leaving his wife in pursuit of his music doesn't feel as definitive as a triumphant rescue from death: "He'd driven here to admit to this woman the central mistake of his life. But more mistakes than he could number filled the air around him" (p. 302). Or perhaps Eurydice has been gender-swapped, and Peter travels to the underworld of Alzheimer's when he seeks out his former best friend in order to salvage their broken relationship, on the edge of death and the destruction of memory.
Any or all of these characters could function as the Eurydice to Peter's Orpheus, but maybe he travels only to save himself, restore his past, revitalize his art, retrieve his muse. Orfeo suggests again and again, however, that saving a life might not be so different from saving art: the novel develops a connection between music and life that is not merely figurative, but distinctly literal. For this reason, when Peter muses that his daughter might be his "only decent composition" (p. 365), the revelation is not trite or over-sentimental, but a logical extension of his views on the fundamental interconnectedness, even interchangeability, of the "artificial" art created by humans and the "natural" art of organic life. Powers had earlier drawn a comparison between the possibilities that genetic engineering offers for musical composition and Peter's wonder at his daughter's transformation from a single cell to a human being capable of producing music: "It's music from out of something that, a few dozen months before, was nothing but the sequences hidden in a single cell" (p. 186). Life is a music, or music is a life.
Every era has produced its own ample crop of Orpheuses, but Orfeo may be just the slant retelling of the myth that we need in the early twenty-first century. The novel itself comments self-consciously on the artist's inevitable anxiety about producing a new work when the field is already crowded to supersaturation: "No listener would ever need more than a fraction of the music that had already been made, but something inside the cells needed to make a million times more" (p. 331). Over the course of the novel, Peter struggles to discover what this "something inside the cells" might be, the nature of the primal desire that links art and life. The novel's final few pages may conceal the ars poetica that Peter—and perhaps Powers as well—have been seeking all along, a solution to the riddle of art and life, a way to defeat death and time. Peter has flirted with dreams of immortality throughout the novel, searching for it in Borges ("perhaps we all know deep down that we are immortal and that sooner or later all men will do and know all things"); in Whitman ("to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier"); in our children, greatest of compositions and the most reliable vehicles for copying our selves; even in the grail of transhumanism, mind-uploading; and in music, always music, which can defeat time by transporting us through it to eternity. But perhaps Powers, well before the novel's conclusion, already identifies the desire linking art and life as that which can overcome death, and he names it something other than the base instinct to reproduce: "Whatever we love will live again" (p. 211).
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.