by Arthur Phillips, reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Wednesday September 22, 7:30 pm
In his breakout novel, Prague, Arthur Phillips focused on the mood and attitude of ex-pat Americans in emerging Eastern European nations. At the time of the book's setting, the early '90s, those countries were stepping out from decades of stoic communism and were blossoming with fervor, optimism, and a touch of hedonism. But instead of plopping his cast of wayward American characters into the fray, Phillips set them in Budapest, a comfortable distance from the real action. As a result, the characters suffered from inferiority complexes, pining for something big to happen and making up for their deficient lives by over-inflating their own importance.
In his second novel, The Egyptologist, Phillips expands and deepens this theme. This time around, 1922 is the pivotal year and a young huckster, Ralph Trilipush, has convinced a group of wealthy Boston investors to finance a dubious expedition to unearth the tomb of Atum-hadu, a legendary pharaoh who allegedly produced reams of pornographic hieroglyphics. Just like in Prague, the main character, Trilipush, is tangential to the real action happening in the world--and his ego suffers pathologically from this snubbing. While other archeologists are reveling in magnificent tombs--like Howard Carter unearthing King Tut's tomb--Trilipush, it becomes apparent, is most likely a sham and a blowhole.
Phillips cleverly offers the narrative in a series of pompous journal entries from Trilipush and letters from a private eye who had been hired to track down Trilipush 30 years after his disappearance. None of these correspondences are completely trustworthy. But that is ultimately their charm; the unreliable narrators leave the reader to his own sleuthing, sifting fact from fantasy and plucking small gems of reality from the mountains of lies and self-lauding recollections. This narrative is not unlike its own archeological expedition.
But that is not to say the mysterious plot is the main goal of The Egyptologist--it's about as difficult to solve as a Scooby Doo cartoon. No, the hidden treasures of the book lie largely in the beauty of craft; in discovering a young author who populates a literary labyrinth with engaging, romantic and effortlessly humorous characters.