Review: The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips

I’m worried that I’m maybe losing my ability to love new books. You know that phenomenon where if you buy a something, you’re more likely to consider that something worth the money than if you just test it out in a store? I’m worried that the reverse thing to that is happening: that my desire to pare down my library to meet space requirements is keeping me from loving new books the way they deserve to be loved. The last book I truly loved, like the last book where I thought, Damn, this book has to keep happening, was in early October. Y’all, that was so long ago! Why haven’t I loved a book in almost four months?What is happening to me.

That said, I enjoyed The Egyptologist a lot, and I am prepared to read more Arthur Phillips. Half of the story is the diary of Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush, on an underfunded mission to discover the lost tomb of the possibly fictional pharaoh Atum-Hadu. (Meanwhile, in another part of Egypt, Howard Carter is discovering King Tut’s tomb.) The other half of the book is a letter written thirty years later by private investigator Harold Ferrell, recounting the investigation that brought him into contact with Trilipush’s work, life, and fiancee.

The Egyptologist is a wonderful example of unreliable narrators done right. Trilipush and Ferrell are both men with a certain level of expertise in their fields, and they are also men whose desires get in the way of their judgment. If either of them ever approached their subject with clear eyes, they would get the answer; but they are unable to do it. It’s clear from the beginning that Trilipush is slightly crazy and extremely egotistical, and the fun of his story is trying to read between the lines and figure out what’s true and what’s all in his brain. The fun with Ferrell’s side of the narration is that he starts out doing okay, investigating like a Mars would, and then his emotions begin to increasingly cloud his ability to do his job.

Spoilers ensue in this paragraph only. The end of the book was wonderfully satisfying and disturbing and tragic. I remember my mother talking to me about the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet when I was a kid, and she said that what makes it tragic is what a near miss everything is: how often it seems like the star-crossed lovers are going to escape their doom. If there hadn’t been that one roadblock; if Mercutio had just shut up and gone home; if Romeo had waited two more minutes in the tomb. So the quality of tragedy that I particularly admire is its non-inevitability. The ending of The Egyptologist is beautifully, gloriously preventable, with the added bonus that one protagonist just goes balls-out crazy, and the other one refuses to see the solution to the mystery even when it’s right under his nose. Yay! [End spoilers]

I was going to make the complaint that the queer characters are very unsympathetic, but then I remembered that the straight characters are equally unsympathetic. So I’m revising my complaint to be: Everyone is completely unsympathetic. Nobody is nice, nobody behaves with integrity. When the author doesn’t bother humanizing his characters, the book tends to come off — I don’t know. I don’t engage with it on the same emotional level, so my enjoyment is all intellectual, and that’s great cause yay for brains, but I enjoy a book more when my brain and heart are both engaged.

Hence, three stars! In the past I have thought of three stars as meaning “yeah it was fine” in a sort of “meh” tone, but I’ve decided to start thinking of three stars the way Netflix does, i.e., “I liked it.” I currently have my own Netflix account for the first time (I know, I am not an early adopter), and their rating system is so clear and reasonable. So that’s what I’m using now. It’s not about how technically proficient the book was (because then I would give this four stars for sure); it’s about how much I liked it.

Thanks to Dana for mentioning The Egyptologist regularishly, so that I never forgot I wanted to read it. I will now accept further Arthur Phillips recommendations. The Tragedy of Arthur looks slightly daunting but I will try it if y’all think it’s good.