One of the great delights of my literary life has been to meet and know the man I consider one of the greatest literary novelists of the past century.
His latest book, out in January, is Orfeo, the story of a 70-year-old composer who by design and default winds up trying to encode the music of the spheres into living cells. I have told Powers before that I am his ideal reader--someone who is a novelist and a classically trained musician as well as someone who made his living as a science writer for 27 years. And the class in which he joined us was a molecular biology class that I co-taught with one of the University of Georgia's most honored professors.
Orfeo left me an exalted, sobbing, joyful wreck. The story Powers tells is unforgettable, life-changing. It tells the story of 20th century music and how composers from the 40s through the 60s tried to push how far the ear could hear--and how far they could change our definition of what is music.
It is also the story of an old man taking stock of his life after a career of composing mostly unheard music. As always, Powers has his fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist while he is telling a deeply personal story. Our composer, Peter Els, in his lifelong failure, is trying to make the music of the stars as it were, but after 9/11 he falls under suspicion of doing something dangerous and goes on the run across America.
And of course what he has done is dangerous. He is moving what we create from human hands into the growing cosmos. And only with his journey and the help of an old friend and his daughter does he realize what he has, in the end, accomplished.
In a podcast provided by the book's publisher W. W. Norton on their website, Powers says that in the course of writing the book he found himself listening to the world in a new way. "All that would have been extraneous [in the past] is now symphonic to me," he said.
Interestingly, Powers spent a semester as a scholar in a genetic engineering lab at Stanford in 2010 and learned the nuts and bolts of what he's writing about in Orfeo. My experience at UGA was somewhat similar to his, I think. And now he's at Stanford full time as a professor of creative writing.
Surely, surely this novel will win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And if I'm still around when Richard Powers wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, I'll be cheering with the growing masses of his fans worldwide.
There aren't enough ways to praise Richard Powers's magnificent Orfeo.