Cody Pickens for TIME
January 16, 2014 5:30 PM EST

Music is one of Richard Powers’ abiding preoccupations, so it’s not surprising that the hero of his new novel Orfeo is an avant-garde composer, albeit an obscure one. Peter Els has spent his life in a mad, stumbling quest for “the tune that would raise everyone he ever knew from the dead and make them laugh with remembering.” (References to the myth of Orpheus come early and often, starting with the title.) But when we first meet Peter, at age 70, he is, oddly, not composing music but manipulating the DNA (another Powers preoccupation) of a mildly toxic bacterium in an amateur laboratory he has set up in his home.

I had been taking a break from Powers when I picked up Orfeo. The last book of his I read–full disclosure–was Galatea 2.2 in 1995. I felt vexed by that novel, and vexed that I was vexed: Powers is and was even then one of the more critically celebrated writers of his generation, but somehow I couldn’t manage to be charmed by his work. He seemed more interested in ideas than in people. So in that selfish way that readers do–and I think a certain amount of selfishness is allowable when one reads for pleasure–I skipped his next five novels, one of which, The Echo Maker, won the National Book Award. With Orfeo I thought it was time to see whether Powers or I had changed.

Orfeo proceeds along two timelines in parallel. In one we review Peter’s past, from his childhood as a nerdy musical prodigy on through decades of struggling with his romantic fecklessness, the vagaries of musical fashion and the indifference of an easy-listening world. (“That was the kind of music Els wrote: more people onstage than in the audience.”) Interspersed with this are scenes from Peter’s more conventionally thrillerish present, in which a couple of cops stumble on his lab and then tip off the feds, who decide that Peter is a bioterrorist bent on distributing deadly mutated pathogens. When they raid his house, Peter freaks out and runs for it.

Powers has set himself some challenges here. One is that a large fraction of Orfeo consists of descriptions of Peter listening ecstatically to music, either real (Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time) or fictional (Peter’s settings of Borges for soprano, his opera based on the Siege of Münster). Powers is a past master at this game–in the Mahler, “the lines haunt each other in parallel intervals, perseverating, like a lone figure rocking in the corner, biting his sleeve”–but it’s a very large amount of a good thing. As Peter ascended to yet another state of musical rapture, I couldn’t help wishing I were having as good a time as he was. (And an unanswered question: If Peter’s own work is so brilliant–and he certainly seems to enjoy it–how come he’s so obscure? It’s a disconnect.)

Powers does wonderment very well, but when things settle back to earth, his writing becomes uneven. He uses figurative language compulsively and sometimes inexactly: “His face was an anagram for confusion,” for example (ficus noon? of nuncios?), or this deeply unsexy metaphor: “the drumlins of her breasts.” His plotting is clumsy too. Music isn’t about anything, Peter tells us. Music just is. But novels, for better or worse, are about people, and Powers is careless with them. I grant that it’s not impossible for one person to be obsessed with both music and genetics–after all, Powers is–but it’s asking a lot of the reader to believe that an elderly composer would suddenly turn his home into a genetic laboratory. As a load-bearing plot element, it’s dangerously weak. This sort of thing can be done well–cf. The Flamethrowers, in which Rachel Kushner gives her heroine twin obsessions with art and speed–but Peter sometimes feels like two characters strong-armed into the same body.

At times Peter does things only characters in novels do. Would he really run, triggering a national manhunt, rather than just explain to the police that he is in fact not a terrorist? He won’t even explain it to his friends, or his ex-wife, or his own daughter, who is devastated by what’s happening. The reader is left with two unappealing options: either Powers is holding Peter back deliberately, just to jack up the tension, or Peter is indulging a deep and not very appealing strain of narcissism. He’s certainly willing to let a lot of people suffer for the sake of his private bio-techno-aesthetic crusade.

It feels almost churlish to call petty plot fouls when there are more exalted games afoot. Powers shows a lot of skill and deep knowledge in evoking the surges and purges of 20th century musical history, and Peter’s efforts to find “a middle path between Romantic indulgence and sterile algorithms, between the grip of the past and the cult of progress.” But this is the fallen stuff of which novels are made. There’s a big reveal at the end of Orfeo, a single stroke whereby Els “could make his great song of the Earth at last–music for forever and for no one.” But it can’t do what the book needs it to do, which is to be so transcendently meaningful that it fuses the book’s two strands into one and redeems Peter’s lost promise and his personal failings. Orfeo is a strangely self-loathing book: it exalts the raging splendors of music, which challenge death itself, but it shows only a passing interest in that clumsier, more mortal, more human medium, the novel.

This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.

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