Tomb Raider

I'll take priapic mummies for $500: 'Jeopardy' champ and literary riddler Arthur Phillips
Thomas Legreve

Open the trick sarcophagus that is the The Egyptologist and you unearth that most retro of genres, the novel in letters. The book begins with an entry from Ralph Trilipush's diary, which helpfully provides a map to an archeological site barely a quarter-mile from Howard Carter's simultaneous discovery of King Tut. It lists the time of day, even the record playing on Ralph's Victrola. It is 1922 and he is predicting the future for his beloved Margaret ("my eternal Queen whose beauty astonishes the sun") at the end of a demanding and successful dig. He and her father will return to Boston, having papered over unnamed difficulties, and there Ralph and Margaret will wed. Ralph will retool his expedition and reap the fame he deserves.

Yet mixed into the novel with Ralph's letters is another set addressed to Margaret's nephew from a private detective three decades later, filling in details of her forgotten first engagement. As the private detective has discovered, Ralph's alleged alma mater, Oxford, has never heard of him. Ralph seems to have vanished, from history and memory. We have some work to do.

Phillips's exasperatingly self-aware first novel, Prague, kicked off the vogue for quasi-memoirs by smart young things about life in 1990s Eastern Europe. Predictably witty, knowingly arch, the novel was good and bad in exactly the ways that one would expect. Here, Phillips, a five-time Jeopardy champ, has expanded his chops to create something more than clever. Smart yet feeling, The Egyptologist works as adventure story, intellectual labyrinth, and moral examination. The novel surveys the conditions of ancient archaeology--its desert foragings, its presumptive genealogies, its booby-trapped tombs--and discovers resonant metaphors for how we imagine a self into being and keep it erect and breathing.

Ralph's preening self-assurance permeates every act: "With preparatory glory still thrumming behind one and seismic triumph perhaps mere weeks ahead, one desires to hear the soprano of this particular mosquito singing in one's ear forever," he muses of an upcoming bug bite. Yet he soon strikes the reader as perhaps not entirely trustworthy. He spends his send-off correcting the grammar of the patter song his patrons have written for him. ("By Isis, Ra, and Horus/Ol' Pushy will reward us!" chant these drunken paragons of philanthropy.) Ralph's obsession--the obscure and possibly nonexistent Thirteenth Dynasty pharaoh Atum-hadu--is endlessly, hilariously priapic, given to ruminations on the order of:

Ma'at has forsaken me; I tear my hair
When I need her, must have her, would splay her;
She proves herself a fickle slut,
Suitable only for taking from behind.

Ralph has translated a collection of Atum-hadu's poetry for the, ahem, niche press Collins Amorous Literature (a citation he provides with each excerpt), but he is certain that Harvard will bring out a revised edition after his discoveries become public. His grasp of Arabic seems a bit uncertain; his hired diggers speak a strange local dialect, he complains. And then there is his one-sided rivalry with Howard Carter, whom he describes by turns as a "half-mad, congenitally lucky bumbler" and "my dear friend...deep into his sixth season in an apparently fruitless quest." (Carter opens their subsequent conversation, it should be noted, by asking, "Trilipush? The pornographer?")

The detective is no better, writing the nephew that perhaps they might fictionalize Ralph's exploits, in proportion, of course: "You could be my Watson...but we mustn't forget who's the main attraction here, no offense." We are in Nabokov's Kinbote territory, shepherded by supporting characters who refuse to believe the story might be about someone else.

Though a clue two-thirds of the way in hints too broadly at the main revelation, the riddles and twists of this Egyptologist carry on until the book's last pages. And as a final grace note, Phillips's acknowledgements clue us into yet another buried secret--a playful anagram that underlines all the novel's previous metaphors.

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