CBR BINGO: Awards (2014 California Book Awards Silver Medal Fiction/ Man Booker long list)
Somehow I managed not to get the memo regarding Richard Powers earlier in his career. I picked up “Overstory” last year because it was displayed at the library, had trees on the cover and looked like it checked all of my eco-fiction boxes. (I’m still wondering what to call the nature/environmental/ecology centric fiction that I love. Is there an established understood category for this? Anyone?) Didn’t realize I was picking up the Pulitzer prize when I checked it out from the library, but it was my pick for best book for 2018. So, I have been meaning to get back to Powers, but I feel about him like I feel about Dickens. I need to be in the right head space and have the time and ability to concentrate. His books are no joke.
With that in mind, I happened across “Orfeo” at the library and thought it might be a good candidate for the “retelling” CBR Bingo square. Less a re-telling of Orpheus than I had anticipated (unless it totally is and I didn’t come anywhere near picking up on it), it lands on the “awards” square nicely.
When former music Professor Peter Els finds his beloved dog dead on his kitchen floor, he panic-calls 911. The responders find a distraught man in his 70’s with not only a dead pet, but a house full of homegrown biotech equipment. A life long obsession with music composition culminates in a frantic road trip through his life with the federal government on his heels.
It’s hard to encapsulate this novel, or anything that Powers has written, very concisely. “Orfeo” is an epic tale about a man who sees the world as a composition that can be notated both musically and scientifically. His endeavors to do just that are both his salvation and his damnation.
Powers is one of those authors who takes about 100 or so pages to draw me in. I have to reread paragraphs and sometimes entire pages because I often find my mind drifting a bit. I realize that this does not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it’s just to say that Powers is on another level. His extensive study in science and music coupled with an ability to put words together in a way that can crush your soul make for committed reading. This novel builds slowly but the payoff is in the fully realized characters and their relationships to each other.
I am in no way well versed in classical and avant guarde music, or science and opera. This book is steeped all of those. About 80% of the references went over my head and I made liberal use of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube while I read. That being said, I highly recommend it. While it won’t topple “Overstory” as one of my all time favorites, it is a rich, complex novel about regret, obsession, love, friendship, science and art. In an era of diminishing arts education, “fake news” and fear mongering, “Orfeo” is definitely a book worth considering.