The myth of the inspired musician Orpheus informs some of our most fundamental ideas about the life of the creative artist and performer. Three new novels by Stacey D’Erasmo, Michael Cunningham, and Richard Powers suggest that we can’t stop retelling his story.
Orpheus was the first rock star, the archetype of all subsequent sexy, irresistible, doomed musicians. His song not only charmed all human listeners, but also, in Ovid’s words, “allured the trees, the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks.”1 While the power of Orpheus’s music to harmonize and enchant is central to the classical Orpheus myth, we are now more familiar with the story of Orpheus’s attempt to win back his wife Eurydice from the land of the dead. Orpheus travels to the underworld and pleads with Hades and Persephone to allow her more life. “While [Orpheus] sang all his heart said to the sound of his sweet lyre, the bloodless ghosts themselves were weeping.”2 Just as he was able to move the trees and rocks with his song, so he overcomes the dread rulers of hell and gains permission to restore his wife to the living. Yet on their journey back up to the surface of the earth, Orpheus looks back at Eurydice too soon. “Instantly she slipped away. … With no further sound she fell from him again to Hades.”3
Orpheus’s song is defined both by the power of its near-universal appeal and by its weakness: in the end, his music cannot truly or fully restore life. Nor can it save himself. Following Eurydice’s death, Orpheus gives up on the love of women in favor of the love of boys, a choice that enrages the jealous Ciconian maidens, who try to kill him with spears and stones. At first, their weapons are disabled by the “true harmony of [Orpheus’s] voice and lyre,” and fall harmlessly to the ground. But then the maidens drown out his harmonious song. The “clamorous discord of their boxwood pipes, the blaring of their horns, their … Bacchanalian yells, with hideous discords [drown] his voice and harp,” and their stones and spears finally reach their marks.4 Orpheus’s death can be read as an allegory of broadcasting, as “his torn limbs were scattered in strange places,” perhaps as reminders of a lost original harmony. We are left only with fragments of Orpheus’s song.
Of the three novels considered here, Orpheus’s story is the least central to Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland, although D’Erasmo’s tale of a middle-aged female rock star attempting one more trip to the underworld to restore her lost glory has some Orphic resonances. Anna Brundage is positioned on the margin between legendary and has-been. At 44, she has one big success under her belt: her album Whale is remembered as defining a cultural moment, to the point that “around the indie recording studios,” Anna became, “for a season, a verb;” “‘Brundaging’ meant tearing up the sound, erasing half of it, sending it skittering over the abyss.” (Anna’s closest real-life analogy is probably P. J. Harvey, like Anna, a stonemason and a sculptor’s daughter whose avant-garde amplified blues could be described as abyss-skittering.) But her next album didn’t do as well, and Anna subsequently faded from the music world, eventually falling into a gig teaching carpentry at an elite girls’ private school on the Upper East Side (a vision of “a hundred little girls holding hammers” recurs as a mordant running joke, a reminder of what awaits Anna if she doesn’t pull off a comeback). Now Anna is attempting “a do-over”: she’s sold her only valuable inheritance—a piece by her famous sculptor father—to fund a new album and an attempted comeback tour.
For Anna, the Orpheus story provides a way to think about the decline of both her own and her father’s artistic careers. The latter was seriously injured when a stone wall collapsed on him during an overambitious installation. Anna herself is preoccupied by visions of gravity and falling, and her thoughts are marked by a recurring trope of downward motion as the literalization of the failures of creative life. She imagines Orpheus’s “turning” as a figure for both her father’s accident and for her own loss of creative energy and inspiration:
Turning—in my imagination, he is higher up than she on the dim path as it slopes upward to the surface. He feels it before he sees it, the pull backward. He knew it would happen before it happened, the motion had already begun. You don’t know where it begins, not really, but you know where it tips, where the tilt starts. The air seems to grow heavier on one side, lighter on the other.
Anna understands herself as her father’s heir—like him, gifted with creative powers but perhaps eventually doomed by their painful falling away.
The rock novel, with its stories of life on the road, resonates with Walter Benjamin’s notion of the storyteller as a traveler bringing back news of adventures abroad. D’Erasmo’s Anna is a lifelong bohemian wanderer, dating back to a childhood spent with her sister and mother trailing her father as he crossed the world for his art commissions. In Arezzo, the lines of tourists waiting to see the Piero della Francesca frescoes set her to musing about the glamour of the artists of the past. “Everyone so eager to see the ghosts, the knights, and the martyrs and saints of long ago,” she thinks. Anna has become another traveling-artist knight (and perhaps a martyr), winding her way throughout Europe, playing dive-y bars, clubs, and musical festivals as she tries to revive her former musical glory.
Orpheus was the first rock star, the archetype of all subsequent sexy, irresistible, doomed musicians.
The novel (which D’Erasmo dedicates to “all my fellow travelers”) thus offers some of the pleasures of a travelogue. As the book moves between Copenhagen, Berlin, Prague, and Hamburg, Anna encounters an array of eccentric rock stars, fans, fellow musicians, and lovers. By the same token, the story also exhibits certain characteristic limitations of the rock tour narrative. Because Anna’s comeback proceeds haltingly, with no breakthrough triumph, her journey can feel somewhat repetitive and pointless. The novel ends ambiguously, but with hope, as Anna seems to emerge from her years-long songwriter’s creative block. In its last pages, we see her turn down an attractive colleague’s invitation to get a drink: “‘No,’ I said. ‘I have something I want to work on.’ Which is how it is, really—throw the rope down into nothing, hope it holds, starfish down.” She is Orpheus once again, rappelling back down into the world below ours.
Tyler, one of the two sibling protagonists of Michael Cunningham’s new The Snow Queen, has much in common with Anna Brundage. He, too, is a struggling middle-aged musician. However, if D’Erasmo’s protagonist is apparently on the downward slope of a midlife career decline, Cunningham’s Tyler is a 43-year-old never-was. When we meet him, Tyler is living in Brooklyn and making ends meet by working at a bar: “It vexes him that most people … see him as a middle-aged bar singer (no, make that a middle-aged bartender, who’s permitted by the owner to sing on Friday and Saturday nights).” Anna is aiming to do over what Tyler is trying to accomplish for the first time, but both are wary romantics about their art, visualizing musical transcendence as hovering just out of their reach. Anna believes that “what the smart people heard, whether they were conscious of it or not,” was “my awareness that I was reaching for what I couldn’t quite grasp, the space just beyond my fingertips.” Tyler knows that “great songs hover over his head, and there are moments, real moments, when he feels so certain he can reach them, he can almost literally pull them out of the air, and he tries, lord how he tries, but what he grabs hold of is never quite it.”
The Snow Queen draws lightly on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, but Tyler is also an Orpheus figure, trying to deploy his powers of musical inspiration to draw back his lover from death. As the novel begins, his girlfriend Beth is both Andersen’s Snow Queen and Eurydice, “as frail and ivory-colored as a comatose princess … waiting for the spell to be broken” as she sleeps, very ill, and most likely dying, of cancer. Tyler and Beth are planning a hasty wedding, for which Tyler has set himself the challenge of writing the perfect wedding song. “But how, exactly, do you write a song for a dying bride? … It has to be a song in which a husband and singer declares himself to be not only a woman’s life-mate, but her death-mate as well, although he, helpless, unconsulted, will keep on living.” Given the recent global smash success of Disney’s also Hans Christian Andersen–inspired Frozen, the timing of which might be slightly galling to Cunningham, it’s hard not to wish that Tyler could somehow come up with something as successful as that film’s ballad “Let it Go”—actually written by a married couple in Brooklyn, as it happens.
Every version of the Orpheus story revolves around the limits of art’s appeal, the boundaries of its power to enchant.
The Snow Queen is very much a novel of contemporary Brooklyn. As the novel begins, Beth, Tyler, and his underemployed-intellectual brother Barrett share a cheap apartment in Bushwick. It is November 2004; we see Tyler reassuring Barrett that there’s no way the American people will reelect George W. Bush, and we pass with them through the political disillusionment of Bush’s second term. Cunningham’s realism is, however, of a magic-tinged variety. A key plot element involves an Angels in America–esque celestial apparition—that may or may not be a divine portent—Barrett experiences while walking through Central Park after a wounding breakup. Fairy tale and mythic elements peek through the narrative beyond Barrett’s vision. Cunningham lyrically evokes 21st-century Brooklyn as a semi-enchanted realm, where the trendy “merch”—expensive blue jeans, leather jackets, and jewelry—sold at the Williamsburg shop Beth owns is also imagined, in a more poetic register, as “treasure”—“the small wonders that echo, in affordable form … the jewel-dusted scarves and talking books and articulated golden elephants that once were presented to sultans.”
It would spoil the suspense to give away the fate of Beth, and of Tyler’s epithalamium to her. Pondering the possibility of a miraculous recovery from her cancer, Beth thinks back to one of Eurydice’s predecessors, another queen of the Underworld: “Did Persephone sometimes find the summer sun too hot, the flowers more gaudy than beautiful? … Did she yearn, occasionally, for her winter release from abundance?” Beth is Orpheus’s princess, hovering on the border between our clamorous living world of “rampancy” (a favorite Cunningham term) and the silent Underworld of death, her destiny perhaps dependent on her lover’s ability to make the bloodless ghosts weep with his song.
The title of Richard Powers’ recent Orfeo leaves no doubt about the book’s debt to the Orpheus legend—although given the novel’s dense allusiveness, Monteverdi’s early opera L’Orfeo (1607) may also be an intended reference. In comparison with D’Erasmo and Cunningham’s comparatively slim novels, each of which focuses on a small handful of central characters whose plots unfurl in a limited time span, Orfeo is, characteristically for Powers, sprawlingly ambitious and wide-ranging. It offers a dauntingly erudite crash course in the last century or so of musical innovation—primarily within the classical tradition, but not excluding the likes of Radiohead and Bjork and other pop musicians who draw on classical influences. (The novel makes a perfect fictional companion piece to Alex Ross’s brilliant 2007 The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.) Orfeo ponders the challenges posed by 20th-century Modernist “difficulty,” noise, and repetition to the verities of classical musical harmony, form, and beauty.
We first meet Powers’s protagonist, Peter Els, in 2011, as an obscure composer retired from teaching at a small college in Pennsylvania, but the novel travels back in time to become a portrait of the artist. Els first studies chemistry, and then musical composition, as an undergraduate and graduate student in Midwestern universities in the ’50s and ’60s, where he rubs elbows with John Cage and experiences the shocks and disruptions of mid and late 20th-century musical history. Els absorbs the key Modernist lessons that “[m]usic wasn’t about learning how to love. It was about learning what to disown and when to disown it” and that “[n]othing mattered but finding a new language.” He becomes a minimalist avant-garde composer who scores Kafka’s “Great Wall of China” and writes a forbidding opera about the 1534 siege of Münster for an audience that shrinks over time from a small but enthusiastic cult to almost to no one.
“Whenever writers write about music,” Powers comments in a recent interview, quoting a friend, “they’re also really writing about writing.”5 Orfeo’s musical history bristles with so much rich detail that it never seems simply allegorical. It does serve, however, as an obvious vehicle for the author’s own reflections on the competing goals and aims of art more generally. Should the aesthetic work aim to give pleasure? Or to provoke and disconcert? Should art’s goal be the Orphic “true harmony” of Mozart and Brahms—and of Tolstoy and George Eliot—or the “blaring … Bacchanalian yells” and “hideous discords” of the Ciconian women and their Modernist successors Stravinsky and Shostakovich—and Pound, Joyce, and Stein? In the course of his adult life, Els loses, at least temporarily, several women—two wives and one daughter—and finds himself isolated, like Orpheus after Eurydice’s death, “alone on the empty shore,”6 with no listeners or companion. “And still something in him waited to scribble down the tune that would raise everyone he ever knew from the dead and make them laugh with remembering.”
Forced to make a choice, Powers, one feels, would still take Modernist discord over harmonious European classicism. He finds a third way, however, in a bio-evolutionary turn. Pausing on a jogging path to listen to a songbird’s spectacular tune, Els reflects on our possibly hardwired impulse toward melody: “Much of twentieth-century music had been lost to the idea that the diatonic scale was arbitrary and exhausted, part of the bankrupt narrative that had led to two world wars. … Now this feathered thing sat up in the branches, singing its triads and making a fool of him. Evolution had its innermost needs.”
Much of the novel’s action revolves around a fascinating if sometimes overdetermined plot in which Els becomes a national fugitive known as the “Biohacker Bach,” accused of creating homemade weapons of bioterrorism in a D. I. Y. home laboratory. Els’s breakthrough insight regarding the bioevolutionary basis of music leads him into an audaciously bizarre late-career creative reboot. Using lab equipment and supplies purchased online, he attempts, in effect, to “compose” cellular organisms programmed with musical content as a way to “inscribe a piece for safekeeping into the genetic material of a bacterium.” The former chemistry student Els realizes late in life that “[h]e’d missed his calling.” While the Modernist project in musical composition had trailed off into dead ends of avant-garde alienation, “there were, in a single cell, astonishing synchronized sequences, plays of notes that made the Mass in B Minor sound like a jump-rope jingle.” As a graduate student studying Shostakovich and his audience-repelling heirs, Els had “learned how to weaponize art”; now, he (perhaps) literalizes this metaphor by creating bio-art that the National Security Agency sees as a deadly threat. But Els views his own cellular compositions more benignly, as a new solution to the ancient creative ambition to create a work of art that might live forever.
Every version of the Orpheus story revolves around the limits of art’s appeal, the boundaries of its power to enchant. Every singer or composer wonders, perhaps, about whether the right song could raise the dead and so itself become immortal. In his “one last recital,” Els makes “something even this indifferent world will hear” and turns “a living thing into a jukebox.” Like Orpheus, who was able to “allure … even the insensate rocks,” Els makes the insentient world sing.