Richard Powers, Orfeo


I picked this book out of the 2014 Booker Prize long list… for no reason in particular, I guess. Unless my subconscious was reaching for a long lost memory of buying another Richard Powers book, The Goldbug Variations, that I bought for an old boyfriend who had an obsession with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould. My first ever CD was a gift of just that, by the same boyfriend…

And on the question of strange coincidences, this is the second novel I read this year that mentions the theremin (the other one was Us Conductors).

Peter Els is a strange bird, a musician who was for a time an avant-garde composer and later an odd recluse, then a college professor, and turned to genetics as a hobby: he has lab equipment at home that enables him to manipulate the DNA of bacteria. Following the death of his dog and a misguided phone call to 911, he is investigated because of his strange hobby. He goes on the run and in long flashbacks, we learn of his unusual life, marriage, wife, child and long-time friendship to a strange but highly creative man who was involved in many of his avant-garde projects.

In the end, the explanation of what he was trying to do with these DNA modification attempts is even weirder than anything I could have come up with… Indeed, why would someone pick up genetics as a hobby?

When Els’ dog dies, he panics and he called 911. As the police officers are about to leave, they get a glimpse of his study.

More equipment covered a workbench on the far wall, glowing with colored LCDs.

Whoa, Office Powell said.

My lab, Els explained.

I thought you wrote songs.

It’s a hobby. It relaxes me.

The woman, Officer Estes, frowned. What are all the petri dishes for?

So that does look more than a little suspicious, but the officers do leave without further questions. What they do though is report what they have seen. The next day, a couple of men show up at the door.

They handed him business cards: Coldberg and Mendoza, with the Joint Security Task Force. Coldberg rubbed the fingernails of his right hand with his thumb. Mendoza had a tiny smear of egg yolk in the crook of his lips.

Mendoza said, We’ve received a police report about bacterial cultures in the house.

I see. Els waited for the question.

Coldberg fiddled with his ear, searching for some miniature audio hardware that had been swiped while he wasn’t looking.

Is that accurate?

Yes, Els said. That’s accurate. Lots of bacterial cultures in the house.

Can we come in? Coldberg asked.

Els tipped his head sideways. It’s a hobbyist lab, I’m not stealing anyone’s patents.

Coldberg and Mendoza ask more detailed question about each piece of equipment, how Els obtained it, what it is used for. They obviously are rather suspicious and keep digging for more.

Coldberg waved the pen again, as if it were a laser pointer. What exactly are you doing with all this?

The question that should have been asked some time earlier hung in the air. Els waved toward the pipettes on a wall rack he’d made from kitchen clamps. Learning about cell biology. It’s a hobby. It’s a whole lot like cooking, to tell you the truth.

You’re not a biologist?

Els shook his head.

But you’re manipulating the DNA of a toxic organism?

I… If you want to describe it that way.


There were scores of good reasons, and not a single one would be credible to this pair.

While the investigators tell him he is not being charged with anything. They do take some of the equipment with them.

Next day, Els drives to a park where he likes to take a walk. When he returns home, he finds it surrounded by police tape while a squad of people in hazmat suits are carrying more things out. He decides to drive away and not return home. No one notices him.

That same day, he is scheduled to teach a music appreciation class at a senior center. He has a conversation with one of his students, who happens to be his former therapist, and he tells her about what is happening at his house. He tells her, as if he is trying to convince himself:

I haven’t broken any laws. They’re not going to waste their time on sunset hobbyists. They have real terrorist networks to go after.

He goes on the run. Later, as he contacts his daughter for help, she tells him:

Plead ignorance. You got sucked up into a stupid hobby. Naïve and misguided. It’s obvious.

And of course, in the end, we do find out that Peter’s obsession with his so-called hobby, is not that innocent, far from “just a hobby”, but not in any way related to terrorism…

There are large sections in the book about music, about appreciating music, learning to play music, learning to write music, what makes good music… Quite fascinating! One man’s whole life spent trying to find meaning in music. The young Peter Els struggles to exploit what he calls his “musical facility” while the old Peter Els attempts to find a remedy for losing it.


Powers, Richard. Orfeo. Harper Collins, 2013.

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