Friday, July 4, 2014

Grabbing the arts-science zeitgeist by the short and curlies (Books - Orfeo by Richard Powers)

In Richard Powers's most recent novel, Orfeo (Norton, 2014), a contemporary composer, Peter Els, performs experiments with the DNA of bacteria in a his lab at home - his hobby - using what he learns about the coding as the basis for his musical compositions.  The police come across his lab by accident and suspect him of bio-terrorism and Homeland Security turns an experimental composer whose career has been largely irrelevant to his field, into a world renowned fugitive from the law.

What made this book engaging, infuriating, and suspenseful was that is was so credible. I loved this book for being about iconoclasts whose unusual way of experiencing the world allows them to create science/art that is innovative and even useful.  And that they, despite the inconvenience, lived relentlessly true to their mold-breaking selves just the same.  The book makes the reader do a little work if he or she isn't quite fluent in Beethoven's Grosse Fugue and semi-tones, or polymers and titration, but that is to Powers's credit.  

The absurdity of Els's ending up on the lam, is a critique of the abuse of power that results if one lives in a society where "security" can be invoked any time people with limited knowledge feel threatened by someone who knows more than they do.  The tragedy isn't the trampling of individual rights, but the squandering of an opportunity to learn. Powers's books celebrate the value of knowledge, so this is the ultimate crime.

The combination of biochemistry and music was one Powers had already explored in his dense but brilliant The Goldbug Variations ( Harper Perennial, 1993).  This is a leaner, more accessible book.  What it lacks in the youthful, messy excess that I love in The Goldbug Variations, it makes up for with passages so elegant that you scarcely notice how much information is coming at you:
Bacteria decided wars, spurred development, and killed off empires.  They determined who ate and who starved, who got rich and who sank into disease-ridden squalor.  The mouth of any ten-year-old child housed twice as many bugs as there were people on the planet.  Every human body depended on ten times more bacterial cells than human cells, and one hundred times more bacterial genes than human ones.  Microbes orchestrated the expression of human DNA and regulated human metabolism.  They were the ecosystem that we just lived in.  We might go dancing, but they called the tune. 
It's a little light on specifics, but we can always read more.  And Powers's signature elegiac passages, mating art and science:
To Els, music and chemistry were each other's long-lost twins: mixtures and modulations, spectral harmonies and harmonic spectroscopy.  The structures of long polymers reminded him of intricate Webern variations.  The outlandish probability fields of atomic orbitals - barbells, donuts, spheres - felt like the units of an avant-garde notation  The formulas of physical chemistry struck him as intricate and divine compositions.
Now that's a pretty mashing together of scientific and musical terminology but, to be honest, it doesn't say a whole lot except that this person gets off on the parallels he can draw between art and science.  But to be fair, that's just who Powers is writing for - people who love, love, love the way that the two disciplines play with each other.  It is when Powers synthesizes the two worlds that he cracks open beautiful insights
Life is nothing but mutual infections.  And every infecting message changes the message it infects.
At other times, he accomplishes beauty simply by leaving the paradox undigested:
Cage: "Nothing is accomplished by writing, playing, or listening to music..."

The best music says: you're immortal
In Orfeo is that Powers grabs the arts-science zeitgeist by the short and curlies while telling a relationship story about a man and his family that is redolent with meaning, that slips backwards and forwards in time seamlessly, that has a killer car chase scene, and that uses the narrator's omniscience to stunning effect.
She catches Els's eye and frowns. He holds up two fingers in a covert wave.  She waves back, baffled, and disappears into the night.  She, too, will die wanting things she won't even be able to name. Her shed boyfriend will look forever for a music that will revive this night.  A few steps into the embracing air outside this cafe and they'll both be bewildered, old.
Whether its art or science, information or emotion, I read to be surprised by insights that are just beyond my grasp. Powers's fiction offers them in abundance. 

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