Orfeo: A Novel

By Richard Powers


369 pages, $26.95

By William L. Morris


“Orfeo” is based on the strange and tragic case of Steve Kurtz, art professor at UB and founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble. In 2004 he was arrested and had his house torn apart by federal agents when they discovered (without a search warrant) Bio Art in his house the day after his wife died unexpectedly of natural causes. So this book should have special meaning to Buffalo residents who lived through that fiasco.

Richard Powers makes his hero older than Kurtz because he wants to get inside the head of a member of the generation born around 1941.

Steven Spielberg totally missed the point of 1941 in his 1979 movie of the same name, but others are beginning to get it. That’s the year when Hitler was taking over the Western world and the Japanese were having their way with the rest of it. People born in that year came of age in 1961, the pivotal year of this novel and the setting of the recent movie by the Coen Brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

1961 was the year that the children began to take over the controls of the USS United States, the year “The Lord of the Flies” was being filmed in Puerto Rico, though it took two years to edit its four hours down to 90 minutes.

Powers and the Coen Brothers were born in the late 1950s but they realize 1961 was a breakthrough – or breakdown – year, depending on your point of view and if they want the best perspective on what happened in America from 1961 till now – the craziness of Vietnam, the urban riots of 1967, Woodstock in 1969, the university takeovers of 1970, Watergate etc. – they need a protagonist who was fully conscious in 1961, who had one foot in the past and one in the future, and who didn’t just hear about it the way their generation did. (Bob Dylan was born in 1941.)

This no-name generation is largely ignored, caught as it is between the “Greatest Generation” and the ginormous Baby Boom generation. But now their day has come.

The Baby Boomers have gotten all the attention but their older brothers and sisters know something they don’t. They were conscious when the big changes came: the atom bomb tests on TV, the daily map of the Korean War’s progress on the front page in the local paper, their parents’ stunned reaction to aleatory music, abstract art and pop art. They saw Sputnik dimly in the night sky (the skies were clearer then) and many of their brothers ended up in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

They had to make the best of these changes while their parents’ generation got caught up in the delirium of being the only major economy with its infrastructure intact. Having escaped a choiceless society (fascism) America was suddenly awash in choice – too much of it perhaps. And the choices made were not always the wisest.

When the Boomers came of age they assumed these changes had always existed. They never questioned them. The no-namers questioned the changes but were pushed and pulled by the latest fads created by the Boomers.

Powers changes Kurtz’s name to Els and makes him into a first-class microbiologist in his college days who chose his other talent, music composition – not visual art – as his life’s work. He makes Els older (71) and makes him wish he had chosen the field that had a future, microbiology, over the one that didn’t, modern classical music. And he moves him out of Buffalo closer to the East Coast.

Despite the fact that no music teacher ever gave him the slightest encouragement, Els stuck with music composition over chemistry because one afternoon his girlfriend (who subsequently left him) played a Mahler recording while placing his hand on her beating heart, creating a fateful conflict of interests. This moment determined the path the rest of his life would take. Not a good career choice but very common in the day.

Els and his dog, Fidelio, are an interesting pair. The dog howls critiques of music when Els plays it. But as he ages, Els’ brain develops lesions that interfere with his perfect pitch. This change makes him unable to hear notes the way he once did, but it compensates by letting him see music everywhere he turns in nature. He even sees it in pond scum while walking Fidelio. He starts to find music in his other love, the field he should have stayed with – chemistry. He starts doing microbiology in his kitchen, looking for a sort of “music of the smears.” How Powers manages to mix and match these two wildly different topics is the main problem and triumph of the book.

Sadly Fidelio has a stroke while on a walk and Els calls 911. He’s told there’s a special number he has to call in such cases – not “may” but “must.” (This is too weird not to be true.) When he fails to call the number the authorities show up and find the biology lab in his house. They call the Hazmat squad and it goes downhill from there. Els can’t deal with the authorities so like an elderly Huck Finn he goes on the road.

As Els drives across the country, visiting the remnants of his family and his alter ego, an experimental choreographer who collaborated on Els’ most experimental and least appreciated compositions. Powers flashes back to his hero’s upbringing and that fateful year – 1961 – when Els was studying both music and microbiology at one of the centers for the experimental music, Champagne Urbana, Ill.

Both “Orfeo” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” focus on music, which was that generation’s and the one after its great obsession. But Powers could have written about any of the arts. Similar experiments were happening in literature, painting and all the arts, but he chooses music – the universal language. Describing the often inane and entirely forgettable experiments in painting and literature and theater would be a recipe for disaster. Instead he writes long descriptions of compositions by Mahler, Harry Partch, John Cage, Messiaen and others, hoping that the enterprising reader will download the music from YouTube. I did and it was sometimes rewarding, but it is asking rather a lot of his readers.

Some of it – like Mahler’s “Songs on the Deaths of Children” song cycle – was too painful to get through. Others like the several pages describing Harry Partch’s composition based on graffiti writing on guardrails on a California highway or the section on how Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed and first played were fascinating.

You come away from these happenings wondering if they were worth the effort. Yes, some great pieces were written but there were many wasted lives too. That’s Powers’ point: the no-name Generation’s big mistake was to buy totally into the siren song of experimentalism.

William L. Morris was the co-creator of the News Poetry Page and now lives and writes in Florida.