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
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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