The AUC Bookstore is the best English-language bookstore in Cairo. Diwan once flubbed a TBE special order, and beyond that one senses that Diwan is more about making the literary scene in the same way chic nightclubs are for making the social scene. It is more about seeing and being seen than books or music, respectively. This impression is reinforced by the fact that workers at Diwan are positively nonplussed if you reject one of their shopping bags, since what you buy is actually secondary to showing the world that you just shopped at Diwan. (Editor’s Note: TBE takes a strict editorial line against carrying things in bags from stores that one surmises have some social cachet, or align with the personal brand one seeks to project. The apotheosis of this is that time TBE spied someone in Washington, DC carrying around a shopping bag from Harrod’s department store, as though he or she had just been magically transported from London to Friendship Heights.)
TBE went to AUC bookstore planning to buy Kill Khaled, but deemed it too expensive. A while back one of our editors read a New York magazine article reviewing books about Brooklyn and wanted to read one by this guy Arthur Phillips that sounded interesting, so TBE searched for that instead. I guess it was too new or obscure so they did not have it yet, but TBE noticed they had another book of his, namely The Egyptologist. TBE’s reviewer kind of thought he wouldn’t be caught dead reading this book since reading a book called “The Egyptologist” in Egypt is akin to wearing a band’s t-shirt to their concert, and aesthetically the book is ugly, a burnt sienna color with a big stylized drawing of a pharaoh on it.
Review continues after the jump.
But then TBE flipped to the first page and almost the very first words are October 10 and so our reviewer thought that was weird since it’s our editor-in-chief’s birthday, doubly so because October 10 was also the birthday of the protagonist of the recently reviewed The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, and the birthday of Littell himself, if you must know. And that embarrassed TBE a bit because the protagonist is a Nazi and does all types of ill shit, as Nazis are wont to do. (Editor’s note: Thelonious Monk was also born on October 10, and 10/10 is so symmetrical and ambidatuous, since you can write it the same way when using the European or American dating system.) So TBE decided to buy it.
The first thing one finds when reading this book is a bit depressing. It was very widely reviewed, in such far-flung places as Lincoln, Nebraska, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Durham, North Carolina. TBE has the sense that these newspapers no longer commission reviews, if they exist at all. A friend recently related a similar story. During the Obama visit a colleague of his, an ex-Cairo correspondent for a major US daily, visited to help with coverage. In relating her early-90s experiences in Cairo, she talked about how she was once on a trip abroad to a boring Gulf state but was eager to get back to Cairo, since there was a vibrant community of journalists from all the large- and medium-sized markets.
Which brings me to my second point: This book is not that good but it appears to have been extremely well-reviewed by all of these newspapers. There are really only two critics TBE cares about: TBE literary staff, of course, and Michiko Kakatuni of the NYT. Since she hates almost everything, you know the things she likes will be good. And since TBE’s book critic doesn’t do this job full time, it’s impossible to read everything; just the good ones. The bottom line is that the death of newspapers is sad, but mostly to the hacks who write in them.
Plot summary: TBE guesses the writing is supposed to be like Waugh (Ed. Note: That link is one of the best literary/hip hop jokes maybe like ever. TBE bets it had circa 2000 MFA students across the US in stitches. Late breaking update: UK pop duo Aly & AJ also released a song called “Like Whoa” in 2008, so maybe that pop-literary joke had a second life last year. Sample lyrics: “You’re like a tattoo that I can’t remove.” Kind of how TBE feels about The Egyptologist. From what TBE can tell Aly & AJ are a cross between Mary Kate and Ashley Olson and Prussian Blue)
This is the kind of book that gets described as a “yarn.” So if you’re a yarn-lover this might be the book for you. It certainly had TBE’s reviewer furiously knitting his brow. The plot follows the silly adventures of an autodidactic Egyptologist and the detective sent to discover his true identity. TBE’s main qualm about The Egyptologist is that it requires suspension of disbelief, but that requirement is mostly due to the fact that the plot and characters are inadequately developed, so that, for example, both the Egyptologist and the detective can be acting completely rationally at one moment, then do something wildly out of character, almost always at points where the plot needs somehow to be moved forward.
I think there was a period in the early or mid or maybe even late 1990s when young writers decamped en masse to Eastern Europe to “search for their roots™” then they came back and wrote about it. Phillips belongs to this school. From that generation, Shteyngart’s book was good but the others were not great, and TBE of course loves Zadie Smith even if White Teeth was way better than On Beauty. Anyway, let’s call them the earnest generation. So the whole literary scene was like Earnest Goes to Camp but way less funny.
So yes this is the kind of sneering review that is easy to write. Here’s a better story from Jonathan Franzen, who comes from the generation before the generation discussed above, which was/is full of good writers. TBE thought The Corrections was really nice except the father with dementia, though one supposes that writing dementia is kind of like playing retarded in a movie. It’s meant to show off your virtuosity. But TBE found it unconvincing.