Day 301-- the Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips

Fiction with an unreliable narrator: no big deal. Fiction with two unreliable narrators: something different.

Arthur Phillips's second novel, the Egyptologist, is a well-done--if not spectacular--exercise in narrative. Told through letters and journal entries from the 1920s and 1950s, the novel centers on Ralph Trilipush, an archaeologist searching for the tomb of the Egyptian ruler Atum-hadu. Trilipush is obsessed with the lost king, having translated what is rumored to be the king's collection of lewd poetry.

Trilipush falls in love with a young Bostonian socialite, and with the financial backing of her wealthy father, travels to an area outside of Cairo to find Atum-hadu's final resting place. The bulk of the novel are the journal entries, book notes and private letters of Trilipush, as well as those of his fiance.

Most of the other letters are dated 30 years later, from the mid-'50s. Written by dying private investigator Harry Ferrell, they focus on his search for a missing Australian autodidact and several murders tied to the man's disappearance. Ferrell's investigation ties directly into Trilipush's adventures.

The two narrators are in interesting positions: both want immortality, and both cloud the truth to get it without realizing they're doing so. The detective is more interested in his name living on in adventure novels based around his exploits that he misses that he's wildly off base with most of his thoughts. And the egyptologist is so obsessed with living forever--in more ways than one--that he's grasp on reality and truth slackens over the course of the novel.

The Egyptologist is brilliant in this area; the nuances used in the two narrators' language is precise and incredibly multi-layered. There are a few twists in the narrative that are foreshadowed by the Trilipush's language choice--and the way Phillips delivers it skillfully.

But much of the novel floats along too lazily, too carelessly. I didn't really get hooked into the story until the last third of the novel. And, in some ways, the two narrators aren't very likeable; while that's not a requirement for a good book, wishing ill upon the characters of a novel isn't a good sign.

And the book ends on a bizarre, surreal note; it's memorable, that's for sure, but I think I can say that I've never read a novel like the Egyptologist before, and I doubt I'll ever encounter one like it again.


posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 7/03/2007 10:33:00 PM,


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