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Two years ago, in Prague, Arthur Phillips’s witty and thoughtful first novel, American and Canadian expats in early-’90s Budapest looked for a new lost-generation rush, but felt unworthy of the Hungarian literary, political, and entrepreneurial heroes they encountered. They even felt inferior to their fellow expats in nearby Prague, the more glittering post-Communist Emerald City. (That’s right, the best seller wasn’t really about Prague, no doubt to the irritation of at least a small percentage of its off-the-shelf readers.)
Phillips follows up with The Egyptologist, an exceedingly clever, often funny, sprawling novel that is in equal parts dazzling, daring, and disappointing. He’s taken some of the themes of Prague and spun them into a web of unreliable intertwined narratives. Like Mark Payton, Prague’s scholar of nostalgia, The Egyptologist explores how the past constantly clouds the present. Like the earlier novel’s Americans in Budapest, the English and Australians and Americans who make their way to ’20s Egypt in the new book often make an art of misunderstanding their surroundings. And as in the earlier book, various forms of irresponsible, irrepressible imperialism strut their stuff here.
But whereas Prague was a fairly circumscribed, disciplined work, The Egyptologist, like an overstimulated jazz musician, carries its thematic riffs into excess, to great effect but all too little affect. It is part shaggy-dog story, part wild-goose chase. It is, if you will, a 383-page, virtuoso, shaggy-goose chase.
The Egyptologist of the title is one Ralph M. Trilipush, a cocky Englishman who, in the early ’20s, talks some wealthy Bostonians into sponsoring his expedition to a site near Cairo, where he is confident from exploration during the war that he’ll find the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king Atum-hadu (“Atum-Is-Aroused”). Trilipush, who has a tenuous position at Harvard, is an Oxford-educated expert on Atum-hadu and the translator of some of the king’s boldly erotic verse. A lyrical sample thereof: “Atum-hadu admires two sisters./He takes them to his chambers./Too late they realise the dangers/Of a king whose love produces blisters.”
It soon emerges, though, that Atum-hadu may not have existed, and the provenance and authenticity of the translated erotica are far from certain, as are the bona fides of Trilipush himself. That’s where an Australian private dick named Harold Ferrell comes in. While tracking down the heirs of a British beer magnate, Ferrell sniffs out Trilipush’s trail and comes to suspect him of murder, sexual “inversion,” fraud, and other offenses. Ferrell also sniffs out (and becomes intoxicated by the scent) Trilipush’s Boston fiancee, Margaret, the opium-addicted flapper daughter of Trilipush’s chief backer.
The story unfolds through Trilipush’s combined journal entries, book notes, letters, and cables; Ferrell’s decades-later correspondence, from an Australian nursing home, with Margaret’s nephew; and a select number of other epistles, from Margaret, one of Trilipush’s war acquaintances, and others.
This narrative gaming has its joys. Trilipush’s deep well of pretension and condescension, his unfailing misreadings of others’ reactions to him, his unshakable and unjustified faith in his own abilities, and his scholarly musings are a remarkable feat, on Phillips’ part, of extended, research-grounded irony. Particularly fun are Trilipush’s luxurious indulgences, on his sponsor’s budget, as he gears up for a dig the Egyptian government has not authorized. He stays at an opulent hotel, commissions a portrait of himself, and has a tailor make him some suits “for working and socialising, and something formal for an official Tomb Opening.” To emphasize the distortions of the Trilipushian worldview, Phillips has him digging near Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb—and pityingly dismissing it as trivial. And Ferrell, in his coarse, greedy, bigoted way, is equally self-deceiving. For all his powers of deduction, as he turns various interrogation subjects on three continents into a lengthening list of clients, he has yet to deduce that he’s wrong on a number of fundamental points that the reader has caught on to long ago.
Immortality is the novel’s key concern: Atum-hadu’s immortality as ruler, Trilipush’s as explorer and sage, and Ferrell’s as pulp-novelish sleuth hero. Trilipush is constantly referencing his own past and future publications. And Ferrell hopes that one correspondent, a Mr. Macy, will turn the case’s raw materials into salable fiction, complete with Macy as a Watson to Ferrell’s Holmes. “Immortality,” Trilipush writes, “is, of course, the central issue under the sands. The ancient kings, I would remind my lay readers, all shared a healthy desire to live forever in a well-equipped eternity.” Their modern groupies, he might well add, echo that wish, turning it into a desire that is less than healthy.
All that’s pretty entertaining (even though it drags on too long) until Phillips tilts toward the tragic end of the tragicomic scale. Trilipush is a splendid and memorable buffoon. But under the heat of hardship and the desert sun, he starts to go quite seriously mad, his scholarship on Atum-hadu increasingly mirroring his own turbulent past. And as bits of Poe and even Thomas Harris eke their way into the tale, we just don’t know quite what to make of it, mostly because we never took Trilipush seriously enough to feel convinced of, let alone alarmed by, his, um, grave unraveling. Maybe that’s the point—that serious disintegration can be comical, or that buffoonery can have such serious consequences. But in Trilipush’s case, Phillips’ comedy and tragedy undermine rather than balance each other. In the transition from goofy to spooky, the suspension of disbelief that initially sustains the entertainment fades, along with any investment in Trilipush’s fate.
The book’s other philosophic vein is the unknowability of hearts and history, and the hopelessness of the written word as a tool for truth. Trilipush says—or, rather, Ferrell says he says, which isn’t quite the same thing—that “[t]extual evidence can contain a vast quantity of pits and distortions, like a gramophone disk left in the sun. There’s hardly a written report on any past event that can explain anything.” Trilipush has learned, and demonstrated, that point the hard way. But Phillips, as if at the urging of an edgy editor, can’t quite live by it as author. Instead, he tries to tie up the loose ends of the frayed saga with a few letters, which read like warmed-over Waugh, between a couple of old Oxford chums. Either all is unknowable or it ain’t. Phillips tries to have it both ways, deflating both the detective story and the nihilistic trope. Thus we catch our shaggy goose, but can’t recall just why we chased him to begin with.CP
Phillips appears at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 525-4227.