West’s unparalleled chronological and thematic range is extended still further in his ambitious twentieth novel, set in ancient Egypt during the time (c. 2700 b.c.) of its Fourth Dynasty.
In a tactic reminiscent (and worthy) of Gore Vidal, West sends Greek historian Herodotus back in time to interview the aging pharaoh Cheops, as the latter arranges his own immortality by ordering construction of the great pyramids at Giza. “Herr Rodotus,” as he’s misidentified, is greeted by God of the Nile (and, presumably, doorman) Osiris, whose own tart comments alternate with those voiced by the pharaoh’s family and retinue. But Cheops and Herodotus dominate the story’s foreground, bonding cautiously, twitting each other slyly about the merits and failings of their respective civilizations, and debating Cheops’s insistence that he can feel himself becoming a god. Rudiments of a plot emerge through the (heavy, though not oppressive) miasma of rhetoric: the disappearance of Cheops’s (perhaps incestuously inclined) son Ka-wab; the balancing acts performed by his favored daughter Heduanna (educated as a scribe; ever one step ahead of the men who intend to appropriate her); and the wily marital and maternal maneuverings of Cheops’s wife (and, formerly, his father’s wife) Merytytes, who knows only too well how females may survive (“Woman must ever expect to marry her father, sleep with her brother, be the constant target of uncles and nephews”). What impresses most, however, is West’s gorgeously stylized re-creation (obviously carefully researched and, more importantly, vividly imagined) of a surpassingly strange vanished culture. This is most wittily accomplished through the declarations of Cheops and his inferiors, and in (often hilarious) illustrations of Herodotus’s well-known penchant for lurid exaggeration.
This adventurous, high-spirited writer is almost always forgotten when prize nominations are announced. The prize-givers might well note that an indisputably major oeuvre is taking shape right before their eyes.