Breaking the code

17:00, Jun 14 2014

We live in an era of unconsidered translations from one medium to another.

Our movements are converted to coloured lights on nightclub dance-floors and the radiation pulses of distant quasars in other galaxies can be heard as sounds on a home computer. But what happens if an individual starts playing with the human genetic code as if it was a way of composing music?

In Richard Powers' new novel, Orfeo, contemporary art and genetics mingle against the backdrop of the War Against Terror. The life and attitudes of a 70-year-old American avant-garde composer and science hobbyist Peter Els suddenly take on immense meaning and importance when Homeland Security mounts a raid on his hobbyist home lab.

With the aid of second-hand biology equipment, Els had begun experimenting with DNA in the same way he would construct and record a musical composition. However, in contemporary United States, freedom and liberty are concepts that no longer mean quite what they did, and coming home from a morning jog, Els finds his home cordoned off and men in bio-hazard suits removing his possessions.

Powers deftly mixes El's life on the run from Homeland Security with a recounting of his personal history, the perennial battle between art and science and the paranoia of nation states facing global terror. It's a broad-sweep novel in terms of time, with a chase-plot and lessons in how to fly under-the-radar in a world of constant surveillance.

However, Orfeo is not simply entertainment. It has big concepts. Ideas jostle freely and music is embedded inextricably in the plot-twists. Powers anchors the novel with key-moments in the history of 20th century avant-garde music, including the creation and first performance of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet For the End of Time, first played in a German prisoner of war camp in 1941, and the works of the American experimental, sometime hobo, composer Harry Partch.


Powers has an unfortunate tendency to signal Orfeo's high points with over-written passages, but he is an efficient and engaging communicator of ideas. In his 1991 The Gold Bug Variations, Powers similarly mixed the breaking of the coding of DNA, the music of Bach, Edgar Allan Poe's short stories and the Dewey Decimal System to become Time magazine's Best Novel of the year.

Powers' characterisations are one of the strengths of Orfeo. Peter Els is a compelling personality, and his biography provides a unique slant on recent history. He is the uncomprehending artist, open to vast influences, but somehow ignorant of the real human currents in his personal life. His relationships with his wife and his daughter, and a long-term friendship and rivalry with a fellow composer, unfold over the course of the novel. Powers' ability to handle the subtle effects of time on character is unarguable.

With Els on the run, communicating by mobile telephone as he follows a trail of graffiti through the Californian Desert, Orfeo's conclusion is an unexpected but vastly logical climax. It is the coup of an accomplished writer. With age, there is regret, reconciliation, acceptance, and Powers conveys these changes expertly while still reminding us of the many of the realities of the world in which we now live.

Orfeo by Richard Powers, Atlantic $37

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