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Brainy wordplay transported to a desert land

The Egyptologist A Novel Arthur Phillips Random House: 386 pp., $24.95

August 29, 2004|Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin is a contributor to Book Review and other publications.

Arthur PHILLIPS' second novel, "The Egyptologist," reads like a love child of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire," with Oscar Wilde's Bunbury from "The Importance of Being Earnest" as godparent. Phillips proved himself a writer to watch with his first novel, "Prague" (2002), his cynical, caustic, frolicsome and moving view of a new lost generation seeking to make its mark in Communist-pocked Eastern Europe. "The Egyptologist" shifts to sandier turf, a murder mystery in the Egyptian desert told by some of the most amusingly unreliable narrators you'll find in literature. Set in 1922, the year Englishman Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen's treasure-packed tomb, it excavates deeper themes of class and immortality while further showcasing Phillips' brainy playfulness and his fascination with pipe dreamers and grand illusions.

Phillips cites "the invaluable example of Miss Vivian Darkbloom" in his acknowledgments, presumably a reference to Nabokov's anagrammatic character in "Lolita" and commentator in "Ada, or Ardor." Like Nabokov, Phillips is a compulsive punster -- "asphinxiated" and a townhouse that is "luxurious (and Luxorous)" grace a single page. He writes with his tongue so firmly planted in his cheek as to produce a wonderfully distorted physiognomy. Again like Nabokov, he joyfully skewers academia (especially his alma mater, Harvard) and critics, including a "limp critic" who "aroused himself" by calling Phillips' protagonist "a corrupter of amateurs." But his heart of darkness and sense of the macabre owe more to Poe.

While Carter's expedition unearths the bounty of "some minor XVIIIth-Dynasty boy-kinglet named Trite-and-Common," Phillips' pompous, Oxford-educated Egyptologist, Ralph Trilipush, has staked his professional reputation and his Boston fiancee's fortune on a pornographic papyrus purported to be by a XIIIth Dynasty king, Atum-hadu. An anagram of his own creator, Trilipush is monomaniacally intent on discovering Atum-hadu's tomb and verifying his existence after 3,500 years.

Meanwhile, an Australian detective, Harold "Feral" Ferrell, is investigating the disappearance of Paul Caldwell, the abandoned, illegitimate son of a rich Englishman reared in depraved destitution in Australia. After being arrested for pickpocketing, Caldwell avoided jail by becoming a private in the Australian Imperial Force. He finagled a post in Egypt, where he could pursue his passion for Egyptian archeology. Ferrell learns that Caldwell was ostensibly murdered in Deir el Bahari in 1918 along with Trilipush's best friend from Oxford, Hugo St. John Marlowe. All roads lead to Trilipush, though Ferrell's conclusions are consistently wayward. His sleuthing uncovers no record of Trilipush's Oxford attendance or army record. Writing about the case 32 years later from his nursing home, Ferrell spells it all out -- dyslexically -- to Trilipush's fiancee's nephew.

The labyrinthine plot is a study in tunnel vision and misguided self-certainty, featuring two wildly self-deluding narrators. Phillips interweaves Trilipush's pompous journal and letters to his fiancee, both ostentatiously written for posterity, with opium-addicted Margaret Finneran's dipsy, whiny letters back, and Ferrell's cynical, hard-boiled, crucially shortsighted case history penned at the viewless Sunset on the Bayview Nursing Home. For Ferrell, hindsight is as myopic as foresight. In a rare candid moment when he isn't boasting about being "historical truth on two legs," he admits that "much inside this coconut don't slosh when I shake it, even now."

Phillips relies on several running gags to propel his plot, some of which show early signs of decay from overexposure. Astute readers may surmise where he's going early on -- leading to some impatience with the extended ruse. Trilipush's disdain for Carter's find starts to get ancient after multiple airings, as do his repeated, disingenuous protestations that "it is vital not to allow one's desires to carry one from observing to creating." His alterations to the floor plan of Atum-hadu's tomb are just clever enough to stay fresh through their various permutations, though his analysis of the far too numerous wall panels could have benefited from some judicious editing.

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