The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips: A Book Review
1. What is the novel, The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips?
2. How is it put together?
3. What is it trying to do?
4. How does all of this relate to various, individual tastes in literature?
The Egyptologist is a bit of a change of pace from the books I've been reviewing, here on Hub Pages, lately. With this book we move away from what is called 'genre' fiction. The Egyptologist is what I think of as a literary book as opposed to a genre novel.
What does that mean? First of all, what is the difference between a 'literary' novel and a 'genre' novel? Here is how I differentiate them.
Genre Fiction: There is a specific mission that the plot serves to bring to fruition. There is something specifically that the protagonist has to do. The story is always a struggle between forces trying to do something, again, specific, and other forces trying to stop them from doing whatever it is that the former are trying to do. Follow me? This is true for science fiction, fantasy, mystery/crime, 'suspense,' and 'thrillers,' as well as horror/supernatural fiction, and, oh yeah, westerns. I would also include historical novels and alternate history novels.
Literary Fiction: With literary fiction there is no specific mission. Elements from genre fiction can be involved (murder, theft, arson, embezzlement, time travel, etc.) but these elements do not drive the story. These elements do not impose any obligation upon the protagonists. For example, in a literary work, "murder most foul" may have occurred but the story does not have a genre's imperative of "catching the killer" or "stopping so and so before he kills again."
It could be that this is one element in a family dynamic, one whose presence is felt but not necessarily acted upon.
Or, suppose one wanted to demonstrate the truth of the thesis that "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," you could very well write a literary story employing certain elements of science fiction like interplanetary space travel, perhaps time travel if you like, aliens (or alien physical forms) without the resolution of the plot having anything to do with space travel, aliens, futuristic technology, and the like even if you use those things for props.
Literary Genre Fiction: Sometimes you get genre fiction that is literary in character; or is it literary work that is genre in character? What I mean is this: You have literary genre fiction if you can take away the specific mission of the genre aspect of the story and still have an interesting story that holds together.
I sometimes talk about what I call 'literary crime' stories or novels. For me, the definition of a literary crime story is very simple. In order to qualify it has to be possible to remove the crime element from the tale, leaving you with a still-interesting story that holds together; that's all. I like to cite a short novel by Iain Pears called The Portrait, as an example.
You see, at the very end the book reveals itself as being a crime novel when there had been no reason why one should have picked up on that for a long way through. The artist commits a crime against his friend-turned-adversary, a powerful art critic. But the story did not have to end that way to be interesting; it did not have to have this crime at the end or anywhere else to be a coherent, full story. If you're interested, I did write a review of that book as well (1).
Note: The reason I am running down these categories is because I want to tell you what The Egyptologist is, and an effective way of doing that---I hope---is by telling you what the book is not, as I see it, of course. So far, The Egyptologist is none of the categories we've been through so far. It is not a 'literary' novel, per se (and I have to stress the 'per se.' Sorry); it is not quite a genre novel (though it wears the outer trappings of a genre novel, per se); and it is not quite literary genre fiction, as such.
Near-Literary Genre Fiction: You sometimes get genre fiction that almost makes the jump to literary genre fiction. That is to say, that NLGF, let's call it, is suffused with material of general psychological/emotional/even philosophical interest which informs, if you will, the commission of the crime. Still, if you try the test of actually removing the crime element from the story, it just barely does not manage to hold up; and let me say, there is nothing wrong with that. I simply provide this description by way of labeling.
In other words, with Near-Literary Genre Fiction, one can almost remove the crime element from the story; you hope to be left with something interesting in the strictly literary sense; but in the end, the story can't quite hold up with the omission of the crime. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. I don't want to sound like I am 'criticizing' a whole body of work. I am not. This is merely a conceptual exercise. Do you follow me?
I like to characterize the work of Patricia Highsmith as Near-Literary Genre Fiction. She wrote crime novels (not 'mysteries,' there's a difference). She wrote the novels that were the basis of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon (1999).
Ambiguous Literary-Genre Fiction. With this kind of fiction one does not know where the 'genre' ends and the 'literature' begins. This category is slightly different (but it is different) from the previous category.
Remember, I have said that I conceive the difference between 'literary' and 'genre' literature to be in the mission. There is a clear mission present in the plot of genre stories and there is not a clear mission (and often, no way to really even derive one) in literary stories. Therefore, Near-Literary Genre Fiction ultimately does have a clear mission, though the motivational thrust may be more complex than the average genre plot on behalf of the protagonists demands.
Ambiguous Literary-Genre Fiction may be thought of as Literary-Genre 'Cyborg' Fiction, if you like. I view what I call Ambiguous Literary-Genre Fiction as Cyborg Literary-Genre Fiction. I use the term cyborg in the fullest science fiction-sense: half man/half computerized robotics. I mean it in the sense that is rarely realized in science fiction even, I think.
When I talk about a cyborg in the highest possible science fiction-sense here's what I mean: think the Borg from Star Trek Next Generation. Do you guys remember the episode when we learned that "native" Borg-beings are born human; and that almost immediately integrated with cybernetic components. They almost never really experience full, pure biological being-hood. But not only that, we are given to understand that the surviving biological sphere of the body and its computerized robotic components enjoy a thoroughly interactive relationship, such that we understand the biological part to make the cybernetic part work and vice versa; so, in terms of the body's functionality we cannot tell where the biology ends and the robotics begin.
Anyway, this approaches my conception of what I call Ambiguous Literary-Genre Fiction.
To my way of thinking, the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo is an example of what I think of as hybrid, 'cyborg' literary-genre fiction. What I mean by that is that this that book is half-literary, half-genre; and this means, in my opinion, that it cannot strictly be thought of as one thing or the other; it is both.
Now remember that I said that a key difference between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction is in the mission. The Godfather is about both the biological Italian-American family Corleone and the Italian-American crime Family Corleone. The patriarchal leader of both, initially, is Vito Corleone, the Godfather, the Don, Don Corleone.
Now then, in that this is a novel about the Italian-American Corleone family (lower case 'f') this is a literary novel; that is, the novel has its literary aspect. In this sense, no clear mission, no straightforward x, y, z goal can be discerned; literary novels, in this way, are 'slices of life,' as it were.
The Godfather is a genre crime novel to the extent that it is concerned with the activities of the Corleone crime Family (upper case 'F').
Now then, what makes The Godfather a 'cyborg' literary-genre novel is not merely that it contains the elements of family and crime side-by-side with each other. It is the interactivity, interrelationship, interpenetration, and interdependence of the crime and family elements, such that one cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. That is to say the crime and family elements are not compartmentalized from each other, quite the contrary.
For those of you that have read the novel, or even just seen the movie for that matter, you know that the strategic goal of Vito Corleone is to take the Corleone Family (upper case 'F,' the crime organization) 'legit,' as it were. He wants the top people to be able to distance themselves more and more from ordinary street crime; he wants to take the activities of the organization into the boardroom, the law office, and the stock trading floor.
There is a passage in the novel in which Vito has discovered that his first-born son, Santino ('Sonny') has hijacked a truck with some friends. The Don scolds him for this; but not because it is 'wrong' or 'criminal' or 'immoral' or 'unethical' or anything like that. No, it was, to the Don's way of thinking, a poor tactical decision from a risk-reward calculus; it was a 'stupid' venture in this respect.
Then the Don says to 'Sonny': "Don't you want to finish school? Don't you want to be a lawyer? A lawyer can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks."
The Don is NOT telling his son to necessarily be 'honest' or any nonsense like that. He is saying that is his preference that his first son be 'legitimate;' as you know, 'honesty' and 'legitimacy' are not necessarily synonyms.
At any rate, it is impossible to tell the story of the Corleone family (lower case 'f,' the strictly biological clan Corleone) without telling the story of the Corleone Family (upper case 'F,' the crime family); and so it is impossible to tell the story of the Corleone Family (upper case 'F,' the crime family) without telling the story of the Corleone family (lower case 'f,' the biological clan).
Let me say that, so far, the novel in question for this essay, The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips, falls under none of the categories I have delineated so far.
1. It is not a, strictly speaking, 'literary' novel, per se.
2. It is not a 'genre' novel, though it background framework initially gives the suggestion of mission-specificity.
3. It is not Literary Genre fiction, as I have previously defined this term.
4. It is not Near-Literary Genre Fiction.
5. It is not Ambiguous or 'Cyborg' Literary-Crime Fiction.
What is the novel The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips?
I think of this novel as a literary work-disguised-as-genre fiction. It is like one of those multi-stage rockets in which more stuff falls away the higher it climbs.
That is to say, its first face is some kind of genre novel with a specific mission: We meet one Ralph Trilipush, a professor of archeology and researcher into ancient Egyptian studies. Dr. Trilipush is engaged to be married to the daughter of a rich American businessman. It is from this same rich American businessman (and his business associates) whom Trilipush solicits for funds to continue his research.
You see, Ralph Trilipush is bound and determined to make the archeological find of the century: the tomb of the great Egyptian pharaoh, Atum-Hadu (1660 B.C. - 1630 B.C.).
Now, at first blush there appears to be a protagonist with a clear cut goal in mind, which is to find the tomb of Atum-Hadu, though nothing like some kind of Indiana Jones thriller is ever even subtly suggested. The book is not a thriller because the events of the story are not put forward in such a way as to suggest a momentous immediacy. That is to say, that even if the concrete goal (Trilipush's finding of the tomb of Atum-Hadu) remained operative, there is no sense of 'action and adventure' allowed in bringing all of us to that point.
Ralph Trilipush does imagine himself to be engaged in an adversarial relationship of intellectual rivalry with the great (and historical) archeologist and Egyptologist, Howard Carter. That is a feature of the plot, Ralph Trilipush's constant, jealous disparagement of Dr. Carter. Now then, at some point one gets the idea that his rivalry with Carter is entirely in his own mind. One gets the very strong feeling that Dr. Howard Carter does not even know that Dr. Ralph Trilipush is alive.
Now then, as one is struck by this revelation, some of the genre-aspect, mission-specific payload begins to fall away, as the novel ascends the heights, becoming more and more the mission-ambiguous literary story that it is. That is because if Trilipush's rivalry with Howard Carter is bogus then he, that is Ralph Trilipush, may very well have at least exaggerated his standing in the field of Egyptology and archeology, which is indicated by the fact that Trilipush isn't even on Howard Carter's 'radar.' He is too small for Carter to notice.
Still, we are given to understand that Trilipush believes that fame and fortune will be his once he finds the tomb of Atum-Hadu; and he will, hopefully, belong in the sphere of eminence occupied by the great Howard Carter and his ilk.
Now, I don't want to give away too much of the plot, of course. But suffice it to say that the question becomes: If Ralph Trilipush is not REALLY looking for the tomb of Atum-Hadu, what, then, is he looking for?
Question #2: Does a tomb of Atum-Hadu exist? Was there ever a Pharaoh Atum-Hadu? If not, would Ralph Trilipush go so far as to plant evidence?
These considerations make one think that The Egyptologist may or may not be a crime novel in which Ralph Trilipush may or may not be a con artist pulling a hoax in order to separate a rich old fool from a lot of his money.
I have to stress that as far as you are concerned, if you have not read the book, the "may or may not" ambiguity is operative; it goes to the rich, textured, and complex psychological tonality of the book. I'm sorry to talk like this but I am being as clear as I can. But you should not allow my inelegance with words to dissuade you from reading The Egyptologist, which I recommend in the most strenuous terms. YOU SHOULD READ THIS BOOK! Its just that trying to describe what the book is challenges one's descriptive powers.
How is this novel put together (Question #2 from the original four questions)?
The novel is written as a series of letters. That fact in itself (people still having the habit of writing letters to one another---on actual paper) helps to date these events to the early twentieth century. Every single one of the authors is what is called an unreliable narrator. This adds an element of interest because one has to decide whether the narrator in question is or is not telling the truth, to what extent he is telling the truth, when is he lying---and is he lying just to 'me,' the reader and/or to himself.
What is the novel trying to do (Question #3 from the original four questions)?
Well, the answer to this question relates to the answer to the second, previous question. Because we are dealing with unreliable narrators this affects how confidently we can come to a determination about what the book is trying to do? Do you follow?
Now I should say this: the topic of homosexuality comes up. But having said that, I should also say that the book does not seem at all interested in making any moral statement about how 'society' should dispose itself toward persons of 'alternative lifestyles,' as it were. But it does form a late-breaking thematic component of the novel; and this theme is wrapped up in the ambiguity of the book's purpose, such as it can be determined---by me anyway.
What on God's Green Earth am I talking about?
1. The Egyptologist may or may not be a crime novel.
2. We may or may not be looking at a story of the assumption of false identity on behalf of the one called Ralph Trilipush, self-professed distinguished professor of archeology and Egyptologist.
3. Ralph Trilipush may or may not be this man's real name.
4. Given points 2 and 3, the tomb of Pharaoh Atum-Hadu may or may not exist. Pharaoh Atum-Hadu may or may not have existed; or if a figure known as Atum-Hadu did exist, it does not necessarily follow that he was an Egyptian ruler---he may well have been some kind of 'pimp' and/or sleaze purveyor of some kind.
5. The one called Ralph Trilipush may or may not be pulling some kind of scam on the rich American businessman, to whose daughter he is betrothed, to separate the gullible moneybags from some of his money.
6. Ralph Trilipush may or may not be gay---not a good thing for one's career in the early twentieth century.
7. Ralph Trilipush may or may not be scamming himself most of all.
8. Ralph Trilipush may or may not be willfully trying to change his identity; he may or may not be, somehow, be trying to force 'the gay away' through disciplined adherence to 'respectability.'
9. Ralph Trilipush may or may not have been a kind of project by a kind of consortium of gay friends---if he is gay---to launch 'one of their own' into the 'straight world,' for some reason---as an infiltrator, a 'sleeper agent,' a proof of worth in some way that is hard to understand, perhaps even as some kind of creative exercise. The motive is not easy to quite pin down.
10. Ralph Trilipush may or may not be exactly whom he says he is. But then, who is the private investigator pursuing? The target may or may not be someone else entirely.
Who might like a novel like this (a re-wording of Question #4 from the original questions)?
I think that if you liked Arthur Miller play, Death of a Salesman, this book might hold some appeal for you; that is because many of the same issues of identity-angst are dealt with in both stories. Willy Loman is a man very much like Ralph Trilipush (if that is his real name): remaking himself because of the self-perceived inadequacy of his true self.
This is a novel that deals, with some subtlety, with the issue of homosexuality and, by reference, how hard it was to live openly in early twentieth century America. The issue is not put forward up front, but comes in on the back end of the novel; and it plays into the surprising near-ending of the story.
The very end of the story ends up much like Death of a Saleman, with the same deterioration of the personality, ground down by frustration and thwarted dreams. One dies and the other seems to be on the way.
The novel also resembles the Arthur Miller play, in that like Willy, Ralph Trilipush (whether or not that is his real name), has a noticeable tendency to exaggerate. Willy has his brother Ben against whom he always measured himself unfavorably. For Ralph Trilipush, his 'brother Ben,' of course is Howard Carter.
Okay, that's enough, I think. Let's leave it there. Thank you so much for reading.