Richard Powers

Richard “Powers has won a National Book Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; he has been the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant”; he has elicited lavish praise from the critics — most of them, anyway,” Jim Holt observes in The New York Times. “Two of the words most frequently employed in connection with his literary output are “cerebral” and “ambitious.” “Cerebral” refers to his tendency to lace his novels with scientific and scholarly themes, like artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2, game theory in Prisoner’s Dilemma and musicology cum genetic recombination in The Gold Bug Variations. “Ambitious” refers to his penchant for fashioning narrative structures and symbolic networks on a heroic scale.

Powers’s new novel, Orfeo, is about a retired composer who’s suspected of bioterrorism,” Ron Charles writes in the Washington Post. “But it’s really about music — what it means and what it can do.” 

David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times writes: “The story of a 70-year-old composer named Peter Els, who becomes known as the "biohacker Bach" after police find a do-it-yourself genetics lab in his suburban Pennsylvania tract house [where Peter is trying to splice musical patterns in the DNA of living cells], the book appears as timely as an Internet meme. …

 “And yet, not so fast — because the key to Orfeo (its code, genetic or otherwise) is in the use of that word "composition," which tells us all we need to know. Els is no terrorist, except inasmuch as art and terror are related, which is one of the ideas Powers means to explore. "I would tear down the scenery better than all of them," Djuna Barnes once wrote, "… than all of them I would rip the whole existing plan of nature to pieces." What she meant is that art is about disrupting the conventional, which is also what Els is up to, and Powers as well. "Panic," Powers observes, "like any art, can never be unmade."

Disruption is only part of the process which, at its best, seeks to replace old patterns (the conventional) with better patterns.

Reviewing the novel for NPR, Heller McAlpin avers: “In her review Powers is apparently incapable of writing a flat sentence. A flight "shrieked"; cars "scythed up and down the state highway." Eyebrows are "aerobic." The questions he raises about biological and artistic culture are deeply intelligent, yet his characters in Orfeo are sympathetically human. (His female characters – including Els' ex-wife and daughter — are particularly appealing, competent and strong.) His mastery of his subjects is so complete that you never smell the research. When Els listens to a CD by Anthrax — a fitting selection for a supposed bioterrorist — Powers observes, "The song came on like a felon released from multiple life sentences. The melodic machete went straight through Els' skin. ...The music said you had one chance to blow through life, and the only crime was wasting it on fear. Bravo, Richard Powers, for hitting so many high notes with Orfeo and contributing to the fraction of books that really matter.”


Of course Richard did not provide a traditional Top Ten List. He cited the books that mattered to him at different ages of his life. As he is not 56, I need to ask him his picks for ages 50 and 55. If he gets back to me, I’ll get back to you.


Richard Powers’s Top Ten List

Age 5: Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955).
Age 10: The Bible (see below) and The Odyssey by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?).
Age 15: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954–56).
Age 20: Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
Age 25: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
Age 30: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924).
Age 35: In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
Age 40: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61).
Age 45: My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918).
Age 50: Something wholly unforeseen that will change all these picks, again.