Note to readers: Barry Schraders DeKalb
County Life column will appear every other Tuesday.
DeKalb's best known author, Richard Powers, has just released
his 11th novel, "Orfeo," about 30 years after his first
one, "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance," which
he wrote while living in DeKalb.
Powers, a 1975 DeKalb High School graduate, has produced
an average of one novel every two-and-a-half years, many of them
landing on the New York Times bestseller list. One of his books,
"The Echo Maker", earned him the National Book Award
Author Richard Powers holds up his latest novel "Orfeo."
In a phone interview from Stanford University, where he now occupies
the Knight Professor of Creative Writing Chair in the English
Department, Powers said his latest book revisits a previous theme
he has used - music and biology. It features a retired composer
who decides to try an experiment in his home microbiology lab
involving living cells, which attracts the suspicion of Homeland
Security. Panicked by the raid, the composer flees and becomes
a fugitive known as the "Bioterrorist Bach," a nickname
created by Internet hysteria.
I commented that this is very timely with all the revelations
surrounding the National Security Agency and monitoring of Americans'
personal communications. Asked what he thought of this latest
intrusion into people's lives by the government, Powers expressed
concern that some of this borders on entrapment. He has done
considerable research into cases that revolve around the Patriot
Act and based his novel partly on the real-life experience of
Steve Kurtz, who was investigated for possible bioterrorism after
the death of his wife in 2004.
When I first talked to him four years ago, he wasn't releasing
his novels concurrently in hardback and online. Now he said e-books
are a necessary part of publishing because they have grown in
popularity. He begins two weeklong book tours on both the East
and West coasts this month. Since he still owns a home in Urbana,
where he resided while teaching at the University of Illinois
for several years, he also plans to return to his native state
this spring, maybe even including the DeKalb area among his stops.
Doing an online search for early reviews of his latest
book, I found one from the New York Review of Books that stated:
"If Powers were an American writer of the 19th century he'd
probably be the Herman Melville of 'Moby Dick.' His picture is
that big. Indeed, since his debut in 1985 with 'Three Farmers
on Their Way to a Dance', Richard Powers has been astonishing
readers with novels that are sweeping in range, dazzling in technique,
and rich in their explorations of music, art, literature and
technology."Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin writes:
"It's tempting to read Richard Powers' 11th novel 'Orfeo'
through the filter of the present: surveillance, genomes, government
. A 70-year-old composer named Peter Els (goes
on the run) after police find a do-it-yourself genetics lab in
his suburban Pennsylvania tract house, the book appears as timely
as an Internet meme. It doesn't hurt that the American security
state and its excesses are a driving presence in the narrative;
'The moment he used his credit card,' Powers writes of Els, 'or
withdrew more cash from an ATM, they had his coordinates. His
every transaction went straight to searchable media - part of
an electronic composition too sprawling for any audience to hear.'
Once again Powers has made some of his former DeKalb teachers
very proud. Among them are Joe Lo Cascio, Mary Penson and Harriett
Kallich. I can imagine the DeKalb Public Library has this book
on its "must-have" list.