Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot
Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.
Ancient Egypt and detective stories inspire a similar feverish obsession, and Arthur Phillips, in his new novel “The Egyptologist,” has a pretty good idea why. The novel, disguised as a collection of letters and journal entries, traces two stories, each woven from a mix of fact and fabrication, by two very different men.
The first, Ralph Trilipush, describes his determined search, in late 1922, for the tomb of an Egyptian king who supposedly reigned at the very end of the Middle Kingdom (around 1650 B.C.), a surreptitious quest pursued not far from the Valley of the Kings, where Howard Carter is making his famous excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The second story is written 32 years later by Harold Ferrell, a retired private detective, who believes that Trilipush is possibly a fraud and probably the murderer of two men. (Interspersed with Trilipush’s journal and Ferrell’s account are letters from a Boston woman, Trilipush’s fiancée, who Ferrell also once loved.)
Phillips’ first novel, “Prague,” was a quicksilver concoction tracing the inner lives of a handful of young Americans in the newly opened Eastern Europe of the early 1990s. Their painfully funny efforts to seize an authentic sense of self from the grab bag of secondhand images, styles and ideologies of the late 20th century made it one of those books you either love or hate, depending on how culture-saturated you are and how exquisitely developed your sense of irony is. “The Egyptologist” isn’t as fresh or as witty, but it may be more accessible to the kind of reader who found the characters in “Prague” unbearably affected. It’s an adventure in unreliable narration, and replete with old-fashioned charms.
Trilipush and Ferrell, who have more in common than either suspects, nonetheless represent two entirely different ways of spinning a story from a handful of fragmented facts. Trilipush is the romantic, having seized upon a papyrus of contested origin as the work of Atum-hadu, a king whose existence most other Egyptologists doubt. That the text consists of some pretty racy poems referring to “the rigid scepter of his power” and “her Nile delta,” among other indelicacies, doesn’t help his reputation much. One critic has called him “a wishful thinker, a dreamer of unspeakable dreams, a distraction to scholars, and a corrupter of amateurs.” Bent on proving himself, he has set off to find Atum-hadu’s tomb, funded by his fiancée’s wealthy father. According to Trilipush, the facts must be approached boldly, with creativity: “When it comes to incomplete history, one needs to encircle the truth, not bound at it like an amorous kangaroo.” (That comparison being a dig at the Australian Ferrell.)
Where Trilipush is eager to jump to the most grandiose conclusions (he’s drafted the acknowledgements, epigraph and author bio for his account of the expedition even before he gets to the site), Ferrell is a cynic. He’s forever explaining that human beings and their motivations can be boiled down to a small number of sordid categories, all of which he’s encountered during his decades in the gumshoe trade, you can bet. “When you understand them, people can’t surprise you, you see,” he writes with a world-weary authority.
Both men are utterly wrong, Trilipush because he has too much imagination and Ferrell because he has too little. The veritable cathedrals of vanity that Trilipush constructs in his journals (alternately fantasizing about hanging out with Carter at Cairo’s Explorer’s Club and belittling him as “the passing generation, reluctantly yielding us the torch”) are funny, but Ferrell is the shrewder creation. His is the hard-bitten, down-to-earth, private dick’s voice we associate with the unvarnished truth, but his simple formula for what drives people — “money, hunger, lust, power, survival. That’s all there is” — doesn’t account for Trilipush’s behavior at all.
To the reader goes the diverting task of sifting through the lies, delusions, evasions and misperceptions of these two men to arrive at some notion of what really happened. That makes “The Egyptologist” a kind of puzzle, but most astute thriller and mystery buffs will have figured out the plot’s secrets and twists early on. The real game lies in the slow revelation of why neither man can allow himself to understand the truth and how what we need to believe about the world often becomes more important to us than our own lives.
Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China
Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti
“Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA
Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.
Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada
Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway
Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.
Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.
Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million
Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.
Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon
Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.
Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico
Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.
Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.