Orfeo by Richard Powers begins with an old man, Peter Els calling 911 for help for his dying dog. “Not until the age of seventy, an old man burying his dog, did he recognize it, at last, as childhood memory.” “It” is what he seeks to understand. He recollects his father the day he died of a massive heart attack. In the background is the music of his life, classical, especially Mahler, inspired by death.
Els is a musician and music is the heartbeat of the novel. While his house is being raided by men in hazmat suits, he teaches his music class. In addition he explores I the lab and his biological studies get him into some legal trouble. “He was altering genomes in his garage. He couldn’t tell her: He’d missed his calling. Science should have been the career, music just the hobby.” Els remembers the past, when he got married, puked before the wedding, the birth of his daughter and the late sixties all around him.
Els races around the country reliving the opera he created and his life is becoming that opera. Just as music is the background for Els, Powers provides us with a symphony of words that are melodious. An artist who tries to feel, to comprehend does it through the tragedies of his life: the assassinations of the 60’s, Che, Vietnam, Challenger, The Twin Towers and so forth. For this musician, points of despair are those points to be transcribed onto sheet music and into music.