Powers is the uncommon author who can write a novel of ideas in which the ideas do not compete with but rather enhance the emotional urgency of the proceedings. And “Orfeo” benefits from the deep sympathy Powers seems to feel for the brilliant and troubled protagonist he has created.
This makes sense, given that Powers’ own chosen art form has also been frequently accused of depletion and exhaustion. Prophesies regarding the death of the novel tend to recur with dull regularity. “Orfeo,” though, establishes beyond any doubt that the novel is very much alive. Throughout the book the reader can sense Powers being pulled in two directions by the same impulses with which Els struggles throughout his life: the urge to make it new, the desire that it be beautiful. “Orfeo” is both; it’s a work of which Els himself might well have been proud.