Novelty, Pattern, and Force in Richard Powers’s Orfeo

“Novelty, Pattern, and Force in Richard Powers’s Orfeo,” Kathryn Hume, Orbit: A Journal of American Literature. 5(1). January 18, 2017. 

Richard Powers’s Orfeo pits novelty against familiar pattern, and explores the destructive effects of forcing something new to fit known patterns in art, science, and politics. The protagonist’s dedication to writing truly new music wrecks his marriage and damages his personal life. His tinkering with novelty in bacterial genes will apparently get him killed by the police. Powers has argued in The Gold Bug Variations that the point of science is wonder, not control. Powers embodies this tension between novelty and known pattern by imposing the Orpheus myth on a composer for whom traditional patterns are anathema. Further, by embedding a radical political protest within a well-known myth, Powers demonstrates in his own writing the presentation of the new within recognizable older patterns, the tactic that protagonist Peter Els could have tried with his music if he had hoped to develop an audience. On the political level, Powers equates oppressive police power with forcing unusual people to fit a narrow range of behavior and belief patterns.

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