The Man Who Loved Music Too Much

Richard Powers' story of a composer who dabbles in DNA

Music is one of Richard Powers' abiding preoccupations, so it's not surprising that the hero of his new novel Orfeo is an avant-garde composer, albeit an obscure one. Peter Els has spent his life in a mad, stumbling quest for "the tune that would raise everyone he ever knew from the dead and make them laugh with remembering." (References to the myth of Orpheus come early and often, starting with the title.) But when we first meet Peter, at age 70, he is, oddly, not composing music but manipulating the DNA (another Powers preoccupation) of a mildly toxic bacterium in an...

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