Too Loud a Solitude

The best parts of Richard Powers’s new novel sound like many of the best parts of his other ten novels, which is to say that they don’t sound like novels at all: They are lyrical, serious explications of difficult, technical, even academic subjects, with plenty of real-world examples and proper nouns—put there for readers who don’t know the subject already—along with allusions, brushed over the top like icing, for readers who do. These passages not only explain complicated phenomena—how DNA shapes life by shaping proteins (The Gold Bug Variations), how programmers create neural networks (Galatea 2.2), how corporations grow and change (Gain), how classical vocal performers learn their craft, and how theoretical physicists teach theirs (The Time of Our Singing). The passages—and the novels—also show how apparently specialized or academic disciplines can shape the psyches of people devoted to them, and how those disciplines might illuminate human action, showing us why we love what we love, why we live as we do.

This time out the primary subject is twentieth-century musical composition: Powers’s protagonist, Peter Els, is a composer with roots in the academic music of the 1960s and an up-and-down (mostly down) career in chamber music and opera. Named for the 1607 work by Claudio Monteverdi sometimes called the first opera, Orfeo makes Els’s memories of six decades—recalled episodically amid a present-tense plot—into beautiful occasions for meditations on music history and music theory, embedded in Powers’s prose as Els’s thoughts. “Was tonality out there—God-given?” Els asks. “Or were those magic ratios, like everything human, makeshift rules to be broken on the way to a more merciless freedom?” Having introduced (like a good lecturer) broad themes, Powers gives mini-lessons on individual compositions, some of them Els’s, but most of them real: Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Harry Partch’s “Barstow.”

It would take a hard heart or a tin ear not to quote him. In Steve Reich’s “Proverb,” “the words turn into open syllables. A moment of uncertainty, a wavering between keys: Does that D want to return to B minor, as in the beginning? Will the road lead back to E-flat minor, or leap free into a wilder place? The path bends again: E-flat in the soprano, followed immediately by a half step lower, and he’s flooded with loss, the sound of something said that can never be taken back.” Reading Orfeo can feel as much like reading the critic Alex Ross (who wrote about some of the same works in The Rest Is Noise) as it does like reading a novel with a plot, eager to see what happens next.

John Cage, 3R/3 (Where R = Ryoanji), 1984, pencil on handmade Japanese paper, 10 x 19".
John Cage, 3R/3 (Where R = Ryoanji), 1984, pencil on handmade Japanese paper, 10 x 19".

And yet Els’s life—across the few days that occupy the present tense of the novel—does have a plot: It even has a manhunt, with police. Divorced and on his own for decades, Els has been teaching music at a small college, playing with his golden retriever Fidelio, and conducting almost certainly harmless experiments with bacteria in his home lab. “To Els, music and chemistry were each other’s long-lost twins. . . . The structures of long polymers reminded him of intricate Webern variations.” When Fidelio has a stroke, Els calls 911. Cops show up, find a dead dog and a lot of lab equipment, and ask, “What are all the petri dishes for?” Next morning Els comes back from a jog to find hazmat suits at his house, and yellow tape around it. Rather than face the music before a government that cannot tell test-tube puttering from bioterror, Els keeps traveling, first across town, then west across the United States, trying to prolong his freedom, or to accomplish some last task before he can turn himself in.

As we follow this unfortunate, brilliant man, we discover the trait that has shaped his life: a self-defeating perfectionism. He resembles many artists for whom “nothing real will even suffice.” The antinomian messiahs (Nikolai Fyodorov, John of Leiden) who populate his own opera and oratorios “spelled out everything Els had once wanted from music: the restoration of everything lost and the final defeat of time.” Those are things no one can have, and so Els has spent half his life refusing the things he can get instead: As an adult, he fears “Failure. Success. The wisdom of crowds. Knowledge of what his notes must sound like, to everyone who isn’t him.” No wonder that “sometime in the late nineties . . . Els destroyed the only copies of many of his scores”; no wonder that when, for once, he has to face “a roomful of grateful listeners,” it makes him physically sick.

With his all-or-nothing goals, and his determination to lose touch with his friends, Els must be Powers’s least sympathetic protagonist, the one who seems farthest emotionally from us and from the author who created him. His own drive to the absolute places him in a line of fictive auteurs, such as Thomas Mann’s in Doctor Faustus. “What was it about music’s obsession with Faust?” Els asks himself. “Berlioz, Schumann, Gounod,” not to mention “Schnittke, Adams, and Radiohead,” all found in the Faust story “classical music’s real crime,” “its ancient dream of control.”

Pivot points in Els’s life come when he must decide whether to share control. In one of Powers’s best set pieces, Els, his future wife Maddy, and his future collaborator Richard Bonner take in the chaotic, enormous Musicircus festival that John Cage arranged at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1967. Cage’s aleatory, participatory methods at least seem to challenge what Els thinks he knows, though the real challenges come from other characters with whom he might compromise, or collaborate.

Els’s greatest collaboration with Richard both makes and ruins Els’s career: It is an opera about the radical Protestant chiliasts who in 1534 took over the city of Münster, turning it briefly into an ecstatic commune, before they were put down in blood by the states next door. (Rock-music fans know the story from Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces; opera fans may have learned it from Meyerbeer.) The celebrated, controversial premiere coincides with the Branch Davidian siege at Waco: Els decides that the opera should never again be performed. He will spend the rest of his life as one or another kind of fugitive—from that operatic success, from his past, from his own desire for worldly fame, from the law—although, this being a Powers novel, he will also find some late-life happiness in teaching, opening up advanced music to undergraduates (at the college) and to the elderly (at an old-age home) and to us (because we are privy to some of his thoughts). These moments of more or less pedagogical connection, like his early moments with his dog, remind us how long Els has otherwise lived alone.

Orfeo is Powers’s best novel since 2003’s The Time of Our Singing, though it does not match the ambitions of that magnificent, capacious work. The novels in between, The Echo Maker and Generosity, suffer, respectively, from a character awkwardly close to a real person (Gerald Weber = Oliver Sacks) and a denouement awkwardly close to Lolita’s. There is nothing awkward about Orfeo, but there is a lot that looks familiar: the postcollegiate years as a museum guard in Boston (Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance), the conceit of DNA as musical code (The Gold Bug Variations), the return to the scene of his youth at UIUC (Galatea 2.2). You might say that Powers has started repeating himself. Or you might say instead that Powers recapitulates, that he returns (as Els’s own road trip returns) to scenes important in his earlier life, enacting a drama specific to old age. (Even the title returns to earlier works: A teenager in Galatea 2.2 anagrammatizes “Richard Powers” into “Orphic Rewards.”)

And Orfeo is a novel about old age: about facing both the end of a life and the potential end of a civilization. Els’s opera “seemed to him like a prophecy of End Time.” Surfing online between clips of meltdowns and tsunamis, Els discovers Rebecca Black’s “Friday”: The infamous vanity video becomes “a sadistic joke on the theme of disaster,” additional evidence that the culture is doomed. The great Western projects of difficult art might die with Els’s—that is, with Powers’s—generation: In the new world of social media, “people couldn’t hold a thought or pursue a short-term goal for anywhere near as long as they could . . . back in the waning days of analog existence.” We may join Els in seeing the end all around.

Or we may see new life. His bacteria represent life; so do the works—by Reich and Shostakovich and Messiaen—that Powers can teach us to hear. Taking care of his young daughter, Els asks himself why “he’s struggled to write something thorny and formidable, as if difficulty alone ensured lasting admiration,” when “what the world really needs is a lullaby simple enough to coax a two-year-old. . . . The manifestos of Peter’s twenties . . . feel like a tantrum now, like his daughter refusing to take her nap.” These musings contain a kind of resignation familiar to many parents, especially those with elaborate or expensive educations: We worked all these years to get the rare chance to do something that suddenly seems a lot less important than getting the temperature right in a child’s bath.

And yet it is Powers’s goal, if never quite Els’s, to make something trustworthy, passionate, and engaging enough that after we run the bath, we will want to read it. He tries both to respect and to push back against the tendency of his cerebral imagination to isolate itself from other people, to get lost in self-created worlds. Even geniuses ought to compromise and collaborate, to give up control. Stop expecting perfection—in life, in a marriage, in composition, in information transmission—and you might make something good.

The home-lab experiment that gets Els in trouble (Powers treats this information as a big reveal, though readers who know Gold Bug might expect it) duplicates a real project undertaken by the Canadian poet Christian Bök, who has been working with molecular biologists to encode a poem into bacterial DNA (the bioterrorism angle also resembles the case of Critical Art Ensemble’s Steve Kurtz). Bök’s poem—or the nucleotides into which he translates it—will thus last as long as descendants of that bacterium can reproduce: It may outlast, by millennia, human beings.

That is the kind of survival Els seeks as he tries “putting music inside . . . DNA”: It seems pathetic or creepy, rather than noble, acting out an almost absurdly hostile attitude toward any possible audience. He once knew other ways to think about his work. In his years with his young daughter, before his divorce, Els and Sara create simple music and art together: “Let’s make something,” he says, and she assents. As a teenager, predictably, she will refuse. By this time, Els has spent years as a museum guard and a stay-at-home dad, with almost no time to compose; when he gets a serious commission, he takes it, choosing New York and Richard and composition over his wife and child in Boston. “Do what you like,” Maddy tells him, “but be ready to like whatever you do for a very long time.” He comes to regret, or to say he regrets, that (very male) choice, but not until he has spent years in self-punishing solitude. (In his flight from himself, his eccentric work to create life, Els comes to resemble not so much Faust as Victor Frankenstein.)

After the fake reveal (what he did with DNA), there is a true reveal, late in the book, which surprised me: It has to do with the phrases and sentences, set off by sans-serif font, that pop up unexplained through most of the text. Many are literary quotations, including a repeated tag from Whitman: “To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” (Els had once tried to set that text in song.) To believe that quotation, you have to believe (as Whitman believed) that something of you will survive after your death. Els believes that music will outlast him, that it is, in ways, beyond time itself. “Music forecasts the past, recalls the future. Now and then the difference falls away,” he thinks. “One abiding rhythm, present and always, and you’re free.” Messiaen’s Quartet is a resistance to time and history, “birdsong’s answer to the war. . . . The birds are the opposite of Time.” But it is not enough—Els’s life tells us, as the birdsong tells Messiaen—just to stop time: It matters whether you have to do it alone.

Few novelists do so much as Powers to show how a profession, a specialization, a vocation (and not only the vocation of writing itself), can shape personality, and few treat professions and disciplines so respectfully, as respectfully as their practitioners deserve. (Though most of his works have at least a few scenes on campus, Powers has never written a satirical “campus novel,” the kind that pokes fun at eggheads, and he never will.) But all these explanations belong in Powers’s fiction for another reason: We learn from them, not just how to listen to music or splice DNA, but how to listen to other human beings, whose passions and expertise may not be ours.

But one reads Orfeo wondering if Els will ever learn this. As he flees the police, an even graver threat seems to loom: Will he escape the prison of his aesthetic and scientific quest for perfection? Powers’s protagonists usually, belatedly, get something right—they come to understand their mysterious parents (Prisoner’s Dilemma), or see how to share the refuge they find in imaginative art (Plowing the Dark). They find out that art and science are not just fascinating ways to set yourself apart—in a lab, in a studio—but ways to come close, to collaborate and exchange. “Either experience was somehow as exchangeable as scrip,” muses “Richard Powers” in Galatea, “or we were each so alone that I might as well record the view from my closed cell.” Els comes close (without revealing the ending, I cannot say how close) to missing this insight, to getting it wrong. We see hints of human solidarity, of a man who can listen as well as compose, when we see Els teach the Messiaen to a collection of senior citizens; we see more than hints, and it’s worth the wait, after he leaves town. As he tries to elude the burgeoning manhunt, he meets again the figures he has abandoned for art, or who have abandoned him.

It is pathetically hard, at least until Powers’s final scenes, to find models for companionship in Els’s life or in much of his music, which sounds like a story of human connections refused. And yet Powers encourages us to try. Here is Els once more, as a student in the 1960s, before his drive for perfection turns sour, learning then-new methods of electronic composition, and thinking about how to keep his art warm and weird: “In secret, he returned to the exhausted vocabularies of the old masters, looking for lost clues, trying to work out how they’d managed, once, to twist the viscera and swell whatever it was in humans that imagined it was a soul. Some part of him could not help believing that the key to re-enchantment still lay in walking backward into the future.” Powers, I think, believes it too.

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them Belmont (2013) and Close Calls with Nonsense (2009; both Graywolf Press).