I spent a lot of time last week involved in events that related to the Brooklyn Book Festival: talking with Luke B. Goebel, watching excellent readings by the likes of Dmitry Samarov and Megan Stielstra, and hearing a deeply reworked version of Karl Ove Knausgård’s opus. In the midst of all of this came the announcement of the National Book Award fiction longlist, several of which I had already been meaning to read. I’ll be wrangling with two of these books in a longer piece next week, but I wanted to delve into two selections from it in today’s column: Richard Powers’s Orfeo and Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman.
Alameddine’s novel is, on one level, about an aging bibliophile looking back on her life; now in her early seventies, narrator Aaliya Saleh ponders her family’s occasionally painful history and the civil wars that have plagued Beirut for decades of her life. But it’s also a meditation on a particular type of book: Aaliya chooses a book to spend each year translating, and thus muses on works by Marias and Sebald. It’s an internal novel about internal novels, basically; a meditation on meditations. It’s also about the novelist and thinker as outsider: often, Aaliya contrasts the outsider’s life led by those enveloped in literature with the destructive qualities of governments. There’s plenty to ponder here: family histories, national histories, and thoughts on literature, and much of the strength of Alameddine’s novel is how they combine in unexpected ways.
Orfeo also takes as its central figure an artist at odds with society: specifically, Peter Els, a composer whose late-in-life experiments with biology attract the ire of government agencies fearful of terrorism. As Peter goes on the run, revisiting friends and family, the novel tracks back through his life, from his childhood to his attraction to the avant-garde and on towards the present day. As with his earlier The Time of Our Singing, Powers proves expert at weaving together themes of musical dedication and social change, and Peter’s often-contradictory nature seems organic, rather than acting out the necessities of the novel’s plot. And the central notion–the way art can be misunderstood, reduced to a lowest common denominator, and turned back on its maker–is a powerful one, as are many of the interactions Peter has with figures from his past. (And there’s an impressive structural moment that takes place late in the book, wholly unexpected and yet perfectly set up.)