Schrader: Richard Powers produces 11th novel

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 three 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 in 2006.

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 is doing 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 control … . 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.

• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL. 60115. His column appears every other Tuesday.