This latest novel by the prolific Richard Powers may be summarised very briefly. A 70-year-old American avant garde composer and academic goes on the run when his hobbyist genetic modification experiments attract the attention of anti-terrorism investigators. As he flees, he looks back on his life.

Around this skeleton, Powers builds a rich and complex body of a book.

It is a convincing portrayal of the compulsive nature of the creative urge, so hard to comprehend for those of us who don't possess it. His protagonist, Peter Els, is driven to write music, obsessively expressing himself, although he fiercely declares, "Music isn't about things. It is things." Even if few people are listening and the reception is at best sceptical and, at worst, hostile, he keeps composing.

Els is in the firing line of the battlefield that is the history of modern art music and tracing his life provides a useful summary of that no-holds-barred fight, although readers drawn to that subject may prefer Alex Ross' tremendous The Rest Is Noise.


But Els does not live in a vacuum and his recollections are also a picture of the climate of his times, from the doom-laden atmosphere of the Cold War, through the impact of the Vietnam conflict up to the fear-ridden post-9/11 present, with his pursuers exercising the extraordinary licence that the "war on terror" is used to justify.

Powers skilfully sketches the big picture but is equally capable writing about the private lives of his characters. Els' compulsions eventually wreck his marriage. He parts company with his closest collaborator and is distanced from his daughter, and Powers draws the reader into identifying with these domestic concerns.

The fierce intensity of youth and the dreary travails of age are conveyed with rare conviction, and Powers' writing has wit and elegance. On the run, Els is safest in crowds; "crowds of the young, who tended to look away, embarrassed, from anyone careless enough to have let himself get old".

A member of a musical appreciation group that he teaches confesses that "music was her North Korea - an unfathomable country that refused her a visa".

But for all his skill, Powers stumbles on that most difficult, perhaps impossible, task of converting music to words. His lengthy account of the Olivier Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, like other passages, left me wandering to the CD rack and Els' fictitious compositions fail to come to life.

The narrative drive also falters as the novel progresses and the tension of his attempts to keep ahead of the hunters dissipates. There's an air about it of Powers not wanting anything in his notebooks to escape notice, from the sprinkling of tweets breaking up the text to the factoids about bacterial life.

But it's hard not to react with gratitude to a writer who tackles ideas and emotions with style and energy.

Orfeo by Richard Powers (Atlantic Books $36.99)