Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Expedition Bogs Down

I've been enjoying The Egyptologist (see previous post) by Arthur Phillips, but I have to admit the second half hasn't been as fun as the first. He got off to a rip-roaring start, then settled in to pleasant clip. But by the mid-point, it began to feel like the Pulitzer Syndrome (see my explanatory post here) was setting in, even though his first effort didn't win that prize. It was, however, a huge success, and perhaps no one doing the preliminary reading for the second book had the guts to say, "Uh, listen Art, this is great stuff -- GREAT! But, uh... the second half; it gets a little, uh, slow."

Don't get me wrong, it's still quite enjoyable, and I might still recommend the book (I have to finish it to be sure). The characters are gorgeously drawn, and their language (on display so resplendently in their correspondence, which makes up the whole of the book) is delicious. But I feel like I'm stuck in the exposition section of the book and it's regenerating itself. Perhaps it's the device of using only letters as text that bound him to unfold the plot so slowly; each of the letter-writers doesn't know what the other one knows, and they're on opposite sides of the earth, in the 1920s, before international telephone service, much less email. It's amusing to watch letters cross in the mail, cables (enigmatically brief because of their cost) misinterpreted... but it can only provide the backbone of a story for so long.

Some of the characters might be utter liars, not even who they pretend to be. Some might simply be fooling themselves and wreaking havoc because of it. I'm tired, though, of not knowing and being pulled back and forth. It's unfair after 200 pages to not have revealed even a little of what's what. It's really quite fun for a good while, but then suddenly I find myself skimming whole paragraphs, even pages.

In the final third of the book,Trillipush interprets a very long set of hieroglyphs (not hieroglyphics, as he points out), and the resulting text goes on for pages and pages, doing nothing to move the plot forward. Oh, I get the idea: Phillips is doing a little reverse psychoanalysis, in which Trillipush uses the mytho-historical figure of the Egpytian king to vent all his inner frustrations and secrets. Clever and fun for a few paragraphs, but nothing new gets revealed. A little of this goes a very long way.

What keeps me reading is, of course, the desire to see the mystery solved. With all the excess, there's still a pull to find out whodunit, or, more aptly, who's fooling who. Also, there's still some good flavor left in Phillips' frothy concoction, even after pouring on too much sugar for too long. But he'd better move it along. His character Trillipush wowed his creditors into investing in his expedition with promises of a huge discovery of gold artifacts and historical insight. Phillips made a similar promise with considerable brio at the beginning of The Egyptologist. By now, both creditors and reader are getting impatient.


Muffy St. Bernard said...

Despite your anguish, this sounds sort of interesting! Epistolary novels have a certain richness but they tend to stretch disbelief pretty far, maybe because we don't tend to read as many books like that so the device seems weird.

I know there have been some attempts to write epistolary novels about email writers -- "The Psycho Ex Game" by Merrill Markoe and Andy Prieboy did a pretty good job of this, partly because they each wrote the respective emails.

Thinkulous said...

Writing a correspondence novel with a correspondent sounds like fun! Great idea...

It's not my belief that's stretched so much as my patience... but I'm in the home stretch, and I will report fully when done.