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Wednesday, July 28th, 2004


The Egyptologist

by Arthur Phillips

A Sophomore Success (Mostly)

A review by Benjamin Alsup

For all its Gen X trappings, Arthur Phillips's first novel, Prague, was essentially an old-school novel of ideas, a retro gabfest populated by the well-educated, the hyperarticulate. Its characters drank brandy, mourned the passing of youth, and meditated upon the meaning of nostalgia. And the novel succeeded in invoking the pleasures of cafe society just as those pleasures seemed certain to fade under a wash of tabloid headlines. Prague served, at once, as pleasurable throwback and quiet elegy.

With The Egyptologist, Phillips offers another meandering book stocked with anachronistic charms, this one a slow and intricately built whodunit for the King Tut lover in all of us. Trading the spoken word for the written one, Phillips constructs his tale entirely from old-fashioned modes of communication — the long and expository letter, the urgent cablegram, the private journal. Two narrative lines spin out to form a rather tangled plot: A salty retired P. I. from Sydney recounts his most baffling case while an Egyptologist from Harvard details his all-or-nothing search for proof of a legendary king. When it works, this approach calls to mind the intertextual urgency of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the darkly comic play of Nabokov's Pale Fire. When it doesn't, it calls to mind a melodramatic pastiche of these influences — a postmodern experiment that seems like more fun for the writer than the reader.

I'd be surprised if you didn't have the central mystery of this caper figured out somewhere before the halfway point. But here's the thing: I'd also be surprised if this bothered you too much. After all, when is the last time somebody made the effort to spin you a tale? When is the last time somebody wrote you a letter? When is the last time you encountered a contemporary writer with Phillips's far-reaching interests and easy facility with far-away places, far-away times?

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