What I’m Reading: Orfeo

So I guess people think this book would be up my alley, since in the past few years, I’ve twice been gifted Orfeo. And I can see why, as the main character, Peter Els, is a composer obsessed with music, and in particular 20th century classical. I’m far from obsessed with the topic myself, but it’s something I’ve dabbled in. Indeed, some of the pieces mentioned in the book are works I own on CD and am familiar with–Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Other pieces mentioned are ones I may have to seek out now–particularly Proverb, by Steve Reich, a composer whose other works I’ve enjoyed.

So the deal with Peter Els is that he’s almost seventy and has been a composer since college, a couple times brushing up against fame in the music world but never really achieving it, and certainly never making much money. He hasn’t spoken to his ex-wife or former collaborator and best friend for years and leads kind of a lonely life, but he does have a dog that his daughter bought him to keep him company. And actually, he’s been losing interest a bit lately in music, and has taken to biochemistry–chemistry was his major in college. He found some used lab equipment being sold cheap, and has discovered he likes taking bacteria and splicing new genes into them. And in fact, he has an idea for composing a work and using the base pairs of genes to encode the work in bacteria, thus assuring his composition will live forever, in a way.

Only, it turns out that when he splices the genes in, it may have transformed the normally benign serratia bacteria into a deadly pathogen. For one thing, his dog dies of an unusual sickness, but then he was old anyway. When Peter calls the police because his dog is spasming (well, it seems like an emergency at the time), the officers who arrive notice all the lab equipment in his house and find Peter’s answers to their questions evasive. The next day, when Peter returns from his morning walk, he finds his house invaded by a spacesuit-wearing bioterrorism FBI unit, and only manages to escape because he had parked his car down the street the night before.

Now outbreaks of deadly serratia around the country are blamed on the suddenly notorious Peter, who is never quite sure if the outbreaks are really due to his gene-splicing work. Surely not–how would his bacteria have gotten loose in the world? And how unlikely is it that his innocuous gene-splicing effort would result in such a deadly change in the bacteria? But then, he can’t quite deny that it might be possible. And of course, now that he’s on the run around the country, everybody assumes he really did it.

As he drives, finding friends and help in unusual places, he relives his past and tries to make sense of the musical obsession and personal bad choices that led him to his current predicament. I won’t say where his journey eventually leads him, except that it combines his past and present in a rather surprising way.

I don’t think this book is for everybody–it’s written in a highly intellectual style with frequent references to 20th century composers most readers will find obscure. Still, for those with the interest, it gives us a character study of an unusual but fascinating man.

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