Are you my mummy?
King Atum leads archeologists through a deadly pyramid scheme
Should you find yourself entombed in ancient Egypt, hope that your minions included a copy of Arthur Phillips's new novel among the gilded tools and ebony furniture. It'll make the time fly, and it's practically bright enough to read by its own light. "Yes, Ra, that Underworld sounds great, but I really want to get back to my book."
"The Egyptologist" is nothing like Phillips's bestselling debut, "Prague" (2002), and yet it's full of all the dazzling talent he showed there. Presented as a collection of letters, telegrams, journals, drawings, scholarly analysis, and ancient (ribald) poems, the book opens like some long-sealed chamber of mysteries. But beware: Trust no one who's read this novel, particularly reviewers, whose damp breath and careless touch could easily disintegrate its wonders before you can enjoy them....
Chief among the voices that Phillips choreographs so brilliantly is that of Ralph Trilipush, a young professor of Egyptology at Harvard University. He's the "dashing and mildly notorious translator" of King Atum-hadu's naughty and (possibly apocryphal) verse and a man of hysterical overconfidence. With the tenuous financial backing of a department store baron in Boston, Ralph travels to Egypt in 1922 to find King Atum's tomb, a simple matter, he claims, of following clues he stumbled upon while serving in the British Army during World War I.
We read letters to and from Ralph's fiancée (his "eternal Queen whose beauty astonishes the sun") and the running narrative of what will be his "indisputable masterwork," a comically vain piece of scholarship and personal reflection designed to immortalize his brilliance and shame his skeptics.
This two-month expedition is a scathingly funny example of counting your mummies before they're unwrapped. Ralph spends much of his manuscript describing discoveries that he will (surely) make the next day and glories that will (inevitably) follow when he returns home. This tendency of overanticipation requires constantly reminding his (future) editor to update the text when it's published by Harvard. No, make that Yale. "I could hear the pantheon welcoming me into its ranks," he says in a typical moment of reverie.
He works without a license with a small, threatening group of natives, just a few miles from where Howard Carter is pursuing what Ralph assures us is a "pointless quest," the final resting place of some drab little ruler (King Tut).
Ralph's idol, on the other hand, is the final ruler of the Middle Kingdom (c. 1650 BC). When enemies were crushing in on Egypt from all sides, King Atum-hadu dared to create himself in his own image of glory, a strikingly apt role model for Ralph.
Meanwhile, woven into Ralph's letters and scholarship is another series of letters written 30 years later by Harold Ferrell, a private detective, holed up against his will in an Australian nursing home. In the early 1920s, he had been hired by a British law firm involved in a complex paternity case. His sleuthing eventually ballooned into a double (triple?) murder investigation that involved none other than Ralph Trilipush.
For decades, he's been convinced that "these dynamite tales" could be profitably published, and now - ca-ching! - the nephew of Ralph's fiancée has written to him for information about his late aunt. "You want clear recollections?" Ferrell writes back. "Well, I'm historical truth on two legs."
Quoting from newspaper clippings and his carefully preserved notes, Ferrell seems to offer a much needed voice of veracity against Ralph's narrative of denial and pretense. But it's quickly apparent that he's just another self-reflective surface in this hall of mirrors. It turns out, he didn't keep notes during the most crucial part of the investigation, and the people he interviewed - from a communist librarian to a circus performer - provide testimonies that don't fit together at all.
What's more, academic records prove more fragile than ancient papyrus, and Ralph may be a more eternal queen than his fiancée.
For pages and pages, we're left digging for some Rosetta Stone to make sense of all these competing claims. Yes, denial is not just a river in Egypt. But confusion is half the fun here, whether we're swinging from the roaring Twenties, marching through sand-swept dunes, or serving in the libidinous court of King Atum-hadu.
Slippery truths fall out of these outrageous stories like asps from overhanging branches. Beneath all his comic ventriloquism and ribald parody of academia, Phillips is reaching for something more profound: the sad ways people represent and misrepresent themselves, shifting awkwardly from confidence to self-delusion.
"We are all Egyptian still," Ralph notes in a rare moment of wisdom.
As the ancient kings knew, it's always a matter of creating an image grand enough to sustain oneself but hidden enough to repel detractors. With his feverish plans, Ralph is first ridiculous, then just like that insufferable bore we once knew, and finally - gasp - a little too close to home.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles. See recent reviews at www.csmonitor.com/books.