It's tempting to read Richard Powers' 11th novel "Orfeo" through the filter of the present: surveillance, genomes, government control. The story of a 70-year-old composer named Peter Els, who becomes known as the "biohacker Bach" after police find a do-it-yourself genetics lab in his suburban Pennsylvania tract house, the book appears as timely as an Internet meme.
It doesn't hurt that the American security state and its excesses are a driving presence in the narrative; "The moment he used his credit card," Powers writes of Els, "or withdrew more cash from an ATM, they had his coordinates. His every transaction went straight to searchable media — part of an electronic composition too sprawling for any audience to hear."
And yet, not so fast — because the key to "Orfeo" (its code, genetic or otherwise) is in the use of that word "composition," which tells us all we need to know. Els is no terrorist, except inasmuch as art and terror are related, which is one of the ideas Powers means to explore. "I would tear down the scenery better than all of them," Djuna Barnes once wrote, "… than all of them I would rip the whole existing plan of nature to pieces." What she meant is that art is about disrupting the conventional, which is also what Els is up to, and Powers as well. "Panic," Powers observes, "like any art, can never be unmade."
Powers has been writing disruptive fiction for nearly 30 years; his 2006 novel "The Echo Maker" won a National Book Award. He is a MacArthur Fellow and a Lannan Literary Award winner, and he is motivated by big ideas. "Orfeo," with its investigation of the relationship between music and genetics, echoes, to some extent, "The Gold Bug Variations" (1991), not least in the framing of its protagonist as unfulfilled genius, a quality Els and "Gold Bug's" Stuart Ressler share. But lest this seem like a retracing, it's more a variation on a theme.
For Powers, the key is in the patterns, both those in the universe and those we construct for ourselves. "Was tonality out there — God-given? Or were those magic rations, like everything human, makeshift rules to be broken on the way to a more merciless freedom?" he conjectures, wondering if there is "something in music beyond taste, built into the evolved brain." It's a wormhole of a question, simple on the surface but impossible to answer, and it leads Els to an unlikely unraveling, in which his art and his humanity are revealed.
Els, after all, has tumbled through his own sort of wormhole. A retired adjunct, he has "never even jaywalked," but that changes once the authorities search his house. Driving back from a walk, he panics at the sight of them: "[m]en in white helmets and hazmat suits … stack[ing] his belongings in storage bins." Instinctively he runs, and is, in that moment, transformed from an anonymous musician into whatever passes in this culture for public enemy No. 1.
"The best thing to do was to turn himself in," Els reflects. "His picked-through belongings would prove his innocence. But Joint Security agents had his notebooks, full of their fantasias on bacterial modification. They had his computer, with its cache and browsing history. Hours from now, they would identify the sites he'd visited the previous afternoon — the ricin recipes; the anthrax."
What Powers is after is how quickly, in an information society, any one of us can become suspect. Els had not made ricin or anthrax (his experiments are more whimsical), but the mere trace of those searches on his browser represents probable cause. So too his dreadful flight, which takes him to Missouri and then to Arizona and California, in what becomes a revisiting of his history.
To make that explicit, Powers shifts between past and present, tracing Els' early fascination with music, his experience as a composer, the failure of his marriage and his relationship with a daughter who, for many years, has no use for him. This is his life, too complex and inexpressible to be encapsulated by the quick hits of a culture addicted to ephemera, in which any utterance can signal an intention never meant.
In Ohio, Els hears his name on the radio, accompanied by a snippet from a 20-year-old opera no one knows. "Nothing is more beautiful than terror," a singer intones, "More terrible than His coming. / All that is high will be made low …" Instantly, music becomes "exhibit one of evidence against him … long unheard by all but a few listeners. Now it made its belated radio debut, for a panicked audience of hundreds of thousands."
Powers integrates these bits of narrative deftly, like the interweaving of a million strands of DNA. Yet it is his portrayal of Els' inner life that gives "Orfeo" its heft. This has not always been his strong suit; his characters are sometimes little more than vehicles for his ideas. Els, however, is fully realized: an artist consumed, at times tormented, by possibility. Music is, for him, what will save us, even if we are past the point of being saved.
Partway through the book, Powers invokes the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who premiered his "Quartet for the End of Time" as a German prisoner in 1941. The piece is "a glimpse of the Apocalypse … freed of imprisoning meter and full of rainbows," a marker of what art can offer when there is nothing to offer anymore. In its way, Els believes, it is as dissident as Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, which speaks "of whatever was left, after the worst that humans did to each other." Such pieces share an embrace of contradiction, an awareness that what makes art dangerous — and lasting — is that it means nothing and everything.
"They'll crush you anyway, even if you never make a peep," Powers writes, and it resonates not only for Els but also for Messiaen and Shostakovich, composing in the face of the abyss. "To call any music subversive," he observes, "to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power … ludicrous. And yet, from Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds."
The same, it might be said, is the point of this magnificent and moving novel, which seeks in its contemporaneity a kind of timelessness. "When the body was under attack by invisible agents from every direction," Powers asks, "why worry about a thing as vaporous as the soul?"
The answer, of course, is when else? "There's a place Els has been to, a few times in this life," he writes. "A place free from the dream of security. … And every one of his few visits there has reminded him: We're entitled to nothing, and soon to inherit. We're free to be lost, free to shine, free to cut loose, free to drown. But part of a harmony beyond the ear and able, for a moment to move."
W.W. Norton: 370 pp., $26.95