Richard Powers has equal claim to being the most forward-looking American novelist and the most old-fashioned. What is old-fashioned is his unabashed desire to write novels that are, in their essence, philosophical. His novels tend to possess the qualities we expect from the best literature—vivid characters, engrossing stories, and surprising, at times glorious prose—but Powers’s greatest interest often seems to lie in asking, if not always answering, the most vexing questions about history, science, race, art, time, wisdom, and joy.
In this he resembles Jan O’Deigh, the librarian narrator of his 1991 novel The Gold Bug Variations: “From birth, I was addicted to questions. When the delivering nurse slapped my rump, instead of howling, I blinked inquisitively. As a child I pushed the ‘why’ cycle to break point.” As a novelist Powers pushes the why cycle—and often his readers—to the breaking point, a propensity that recalls the kind of unapologetically intellectual novel that hasn’t been fashionable since Saul Bellow’s prime. Powers’s curiosity about technology, business, and medicine recalls the even more distant, realist novelists of the late nineteenth century, who took it upon themselves to educate readers about recent developments in agriculture or politics or fashion.
Yet many of the futuristic subjects that fascinate Powers—cognitive neuroscience, genetic engineering, computer science—are well beyond the grasp of most contemporary novelists. These are difficult disciplines to write about in laymen’s terms, let alone dramatize in a novel. Powers, in other words, makes things very tough on himself. Part of the fun of reading him is to see how he wriggles out of his own snares. But a greater thrill is to join with him in untangling the most urgent and confounding puzzles of our age.
The first puzzle posed by Powers’s imaginative, intellectually demanding, and sometimes maddening new novel is its title. Orfeo is a peculiar name for the story of a composer, Peter Els, who appears to be an anti-Orpheus. Els’s music, far from charming every living thing, tends to repel. He creates what The New York Times (in the novel) describes as “audience-hostile avant-garde creations”: a twelve-hour chamber ballet oratorio based on the life of the nineteenth-century transhumanist philosopher Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov called Immortality for Beginners; a string quartet dictated by probability functions and Markov chains; a chanson of impossible difficulty, the words provided by Ezra Pound’s “An Immortality,” written “for a voice that could reach any note”; a piece with no fixed tonality written for piano, clarinet, theremin, and soprano, set to Kafka’s “The Great Wall of China,” which “consists of regions of mutating rhythmic fragments dominated by fixed intervals, constantly cycled and transposed.” His masterpiece, and only major produced work, is The Fowler’s Snare, an opera about the 1534 siege of Münster. “That was the kind of music Els wrote,” writes Powers, “more people onstage than in the audience.” Els’s compositions…
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